Letters from the West

Simpson says Trump administration may move federal land agencies to the West

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at a public lands conference at Boise State Tuesday hosted by the Andrus Center for Public Policy.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at a public lands conference at Boise State Tuesday hosted by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. rbarker@idahostatesman.com

Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson says the Trump administration is looking at reorganizing federal land agencies to move more people out of Washington, D.C., and closer to the land they manage in the West.

Several efforts were made in previous administrations to move the U.S. Forest Service out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and into the Department of Interior, where other land, water and fish, and wildlife management agencies are housed. Simpson, speaking at a conference on public lands convened Tuesday by the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, was skeptical that the Department of Agriculture would want to give up the forestry agency.

“That’s a discussion were going to have, but I think you’ll see more coordination between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” Simpson said.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Simpson talked specifically about moving the BLM headquarters, which manages 247 million acres across 12 Western states, to a Western city like Denver. Simpson said he put a plug in for Boise, home of the National Interagency Fire Center that coordinates U.S. wildland firefighting.

“His view is that we have too many people working in Interior in Washington, D.C., when the work that needs to be done is out in the states and particularly in the West, and he wants to move a lot of the management decisions and a lot of the people from Washington out to the states,” Simpson said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said he isn’t waiting for the federal government to work closer with Western states. He embedded a state staffer in the Forest Service’s Northern Regional Office in Missoula to speed communication and policy exchanges.

He does the same thing with state government to better help counties improve watersheds. A state forester, he said, answers to the 56 counties coordinating the work.

Bullock said Montana’s 30 million acres of public lands bring $6 billion in direct economic benefits, and Idaho public lands account for $6.3 billion worth of economic activity. Like Simpson, he credits the huge federal estate as a major reason people live in the West. That’s why he opposes transferring federal lands to states, a idea that didn’t have many supporters at Tuesday’s Boise State conference.

When Bullock called a transfer the “first step in the process to sell (federal public lands) off to the highest bidder,” the entire conference applauded, including Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

Zinke was a congressman from Montana before Trump picked him to run the Interior Department. Zinke’s heart is in the right place on public lands, Bullock said, but he wants to see what Zinke’s actions will be under Trump.

“I’m hopeful the secretary will listen to what we on the ground say,” Bullock said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker