Letters from the West

Public lands bills come to head in Idaho Legislature

Idaho lawmakers who want to force or convince the federal government to transfer public lands ran into a surly crowd of hunters and anglers dressed in camouflage, hunting vests and fishing shirts in February.

The outdoors lovers had come to a Feb. 29 presentation by Utah lawmakers and an attorney, and their presence sent the message they want the public lands left in federal hands. Sporting groups like the Idaho Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and others had quickly organized the crowd to challenge the argument from the Utah lawmakers that Idaho should join the legal fight to give Western states “equal rights” with Eastern, Midwestern and Southern states.

“There wasn’t a Birkenstock in sight,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.

The joint meeting between the House and Senate resource committees was the beginning of a series of hearings on a host of bills and initiatives before the Legislature this session aimed at changing management on the 60 percent of Idaho managed by the federal government. Hearings on two bills are scheduled Tuesday that support the legal views of conservative lawmakers that the state would manage the federal lands better.

The first bill, authored by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, would change Idaho laws that now say the state relinquished claims to federal lands and would set a management framework of “sustained yield.” HB 582 also would declare the state has no intent to sell federal land it obtains.

The second, using a constitutional argument struck down repeatedly since the 1840s and promoted by those occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this winter, would withdraw past consent for all sales of land to the federal government.

Supporters of land transfers have repeatedly said they don’t want to sell off the public lands once the state gets them. Lava Hot Springs Republican Rep. Ken Andrus even suggests a constitutional amendment that would prevent such sales.

But Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz undercut such assurances when he told Idaho reporters that he supports selling off the public land and cited his home state of Texas, which has 2 percent of its land public, as his model.

A third bill, sponsored by Cottonwood Republican Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, would allow county sheriffs and executives to declare federal lands a public nuisance if not logged to their approval. That bill is expected to get final approval by the House this week. The bill offers no new powers, but would allow counties to send a message that they are unsatisfied with federal management, Nuxoll said.


Since 2012, Idaho lawmakers have studied Utah’s legal theories for demanding that the federal government transfer the national forests, public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, wildlife refuges and other lands to the states. Legal scholars from both sides of the debate have repeatedly suggested the ideas would be a long shot to win in federal court. Utah lawmaker Mike Noel said last week that the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could make their case more difficult to win at the high court.

But attorney George Wentz, who now lives in Sandpoint and heads a legal panel that analyzed the case for Utah, said the argument rests on the principle of “equal sovereignty.” Because the public lands were not disposed in the Western states, the argument goes, those states don’t have the same rights as Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states.

That concept is attractive to Sandra Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council, which promotes motorized recreation. The Recreation Council, funded by Albertson heir Joe Scott, is a member of the American Lands Council, the group pushing the land transfer idea.

“This is an option,” Mitchell said. “It’s not the only option.”

Those other options include collaborations that bring together diverse groups, such as loggers, ranchers, recreation groups and environmentalists.

Nonetheless, said Mitchell, she’d like to see onerous federal environmental regulations and planning laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act changed.


Forest collaborative groups recently testified to the Legislature about their success at increasing active management on forests including tens of thousands of acres logged, thinned and intentionally burned along with restoration of hundreds of miles of streams, roads and trails.

“The projects that are coming out of the collaboratives are good forestry and profitable,” said Rick Tholen, a Boise forester who testified representing the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership.

Such approaches take money, said John Freemuth, a fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. People forget, he said, that federal land managers have had their budgets cut for everything from logging to trail maintenance.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said competing approaches — including Congressman Raul Labrador’s bill to set up 200,000-acre pilot programs for the state to manage federal land — will compete for public support and eventually need congressional backing, not just a court victory. Utah’s plan to manage state lands depends on revenues from its extensive oil and gas fields, he said, but Idaho would have to find other approaches.

Bedke summarized the relationship using the example of two people dropped in the middle of a desert with a bicycle built for two.

“As long as you know you’re not getting rid of me, and I know I’m not getting rid of you, eventually we’ll come to an arrangement,” Bedke said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Tuesday’s hearings

▪  SB 1138: Allows sheriffs and county executives to declare public land a nuisance. Hearing at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, House Resources and Conservation Committee.

▪  HB 586: Withdraws past consent granted the federal government to acquire additional Idaho lands. Hearing at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the House Resources and Conservation Committee.

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