At a Feb. 24 House Appropriations Committee meeting on the Forest Service budget, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., suggested there might be some merit to selling off federal public lands. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, pointed out that the people of Idaho love their public lands because they use them for a wide variety of uses. They would not like to see them auctioned off.
There is a better solution than to sell off federal lands. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has a bill that would create experimental areas of 200,000 or more acres in several states to see whether state management of federal lands is feasible. Labrador’s bill maintains federal ownership.
Selling off the public lands is not the main issue, however. The bigger issue is that the federal lands are being mismanaged by the federal agencies to the extent we are in danger of losing their sustainability and biological diversity.
As forests get older they become susceptible to insects and disease. When they die, trees fall to the ground and fuel accumulates. These dead trees feed large, catastrophic fires that burn intensively as crown fires. We saw these intense fires on our televisions in the summer, accompanied by words such as “unprecedented” and “catastrophic.”
Labrador’s point, I believe, is that since the federal agencies are not actively managing the public lands, let’s give the states an opportunity to try. By creating holes in the mature canopy, active forest management can create a mosaic of different species and age classes of vegetation on the landscape. The wildlife species that use those various species and age classes of vegetation will find and occupy it, and biological diversity will be maintained. We need to do little else.
This is not a hard concept to grasp. It only takes some willpower to make it happen. Since the federal agencies lack the willpower to manage the land, let’s give the states a chance. They can do no worse; who knows, they might even do a better job than the feds.
Labrador’s bill limits the experiment to 4 million acres in the 193 million-acre U.S. Forest Service system and would not permit the sale of any federal forest lands. So the issue is not that the states might sell off the federal public lands under their management.
The real issue is who can manage the public lands to keep them healthy and viable? By allowing the states to manage the lands on a trial basis we will see whether state management is feasible and we will at least establish a baseline on which to make future decisions about ownership of federal public lands.
Jim Gerber spent 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service, working on timber and forest planning. He retired in 1994 and lives in St. Anthony.