West Views: Conservative Idaho lawmakers target private property rights

Lewiston Tribune

People are not angels.

If they were — as James Madison once put it — there would be no need for government.

Case in point: the environment.

Industries have grown rich by mistreating it — forcing taxpayers and consumers to pay the price.

Society can respond in two ways:

▪ Impose the command-and-control approach. Pass a multitude of laws to clean up the air and the water, preserve the forests and protect endangered species. Write new regulations. Impose new taxes. Levy new fines.

And that was the American approach throughout the 1970s. Democrats tended to champion it; Republicans did not.

▪ Use market incentives to get people to do what they ought to anyway. Republicans championed this idea, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s.

Under this approach, clean operators got the ability to sell pollution credits to other firms. They make money while the air and water get cleaner.

Or landowners could sign safe harbor agreements. By voluntarily setting aside some of their property for endangered species, the government would release them from other restrictions.

Or landowners could sell off their development rights.

Nobody forces landowners to enter into these so-called conservation easements. It takes a willing seller and a willing buyer. But it’s a win-win.

Property owners — often ranchers — remain on their land.

The land itself stays on the tax rolls.

And the public retains their scenic vistas.

Easements helped preserve Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area from trophy homes.

They protected the South Fork of the Snake River from over development.

Conservation easements maintained the lower Salmon River Canyon from Hammer Creek to its confluence with the Snake River.

And such was the plan for 13,000-acre tract owned by Stimson Timber Co. in Bonner County.

Stimson had plans to build a 1,200-unit housing development. Instead, it settled for selling its development rights.

The Trust for the Public Lands put up $2 million.

Federal Pittman Robertson excise taxes collected on firearm and ammunition sales would provide another $2 million.

And the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy program would up $5 million.

For its part, Stimson Timber contributed $3 million.

The deal preserves a timber-producing asset. And the area’s wetlands and wildlife habitat will not be disturbed by another planned unit development.

So far, so good.

But the federal dollars pass through state agencies. Fish and Game allocates the Pittman Robertson dollars; the Department of Lands budget handles the Forest Legacy sums.

All of which requires state approval. But that should not be a problem in a state Legislature controlled by market-oriented conservative Republicans, right?

Not necessarily.

For example, state Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, tried to shut down the easement funding. “Keeping the land in perpetuity is limiting the freedom of choice for our children and grandchildren and free-market economy.”

Added Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard: “What I do not support is using public dollars to reward a corporation for something they could do for free.”

Even that Idaho citadel of limited government — the Idaho Freedom Foundation — complained: “State bureaucrats, with the aid of timber interests who may stand to profit, are using federal and state money to advance the interests of green radicals — including funders of Greenpeace — in rural Idaho.”

For the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker, the world had flipped upside down. Barker got his start covering the environmental movement more than 30 years ago when the forebears of Nuxoll, Scott and the IFF were complaining about the heavy hand of government.

“In those days, environmentalists were the ones arguing that timber companies should protect wildlife habitat and public values at the companies’ expense,” Barker wrote. “Now it’s people and groups who say they defend liberty who argue that private property owners should foot the bill for providing a public good.”

The Stimson Timber conservation easement bill passed — but lining up against it were some of Legislature’s leading crusaders against government intrusion: Reps. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, Ron Nate, R-Rexburg and Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins; as well as Sens. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, and Steven Thayn, R-Emmett.

Apparently, becoming a bunch of elitist know-it-alls is a small price to pay when it comes to fighting environmentalists.