Guest Opinions

Defending federal land management status quo is a recipe for failure

The Idaho Statesman has recently published a number of commentaries whose authors reject the notion that federal land management practices have to change. Many of the authors went a step further. They reject any change to the status quo; they assert that the federal government should continue to manage about 62 percent of Idaho indefinitely.

Though some of the writers commented in passing that federal land management could be improved, none of them offered significant ideas for doing so. The improvements were pretty much limited to wobbly support for additional thinning and logging.

Most of the commentaries abruptly segued to their key contentions: The state could not afford to manage the lands, privatization would follow, and access and use would be denied to Idahoans. That is not a very imaginative response, but perhaps it is a good way for the defenders of the failed status quo to rally the base and shift the discussion away from the legitimate issue, the unacceptable standards of federal land management.

There is no smoke outside my window today, but I fear that there will be in a few months. After all, 2015 was the worst national wildland fire season in at least 55 years, and possibly the worst year since the West was settled. That year in Idaho some 800,000 acres burned. The future may be more terrifying if we continue the status quo.

About 20.5 million acres in Idaho are U.S. Forest Service land, which equals roughly 38 percent of the state. Of those lands, nearly 13 million are managed (meaning, they are not wilderness) by the USFS; according to State Forester David Groeschl, nearly 9 million of those 13 million acres face a high degree of mortality risk. That’s right, nearly 70 percent of what the USFS manages is more susceptible to fires than healthy forests that are actively managed to reduce fire risk.

There are better paths to follow than the worn, smoky status quo. Two bills in particular were introduced during the 2016 legislative session designed to improve federal land management.

To start, Senate Bill 1338 (which became law Tuesday), which relates to abatement of public nuisances, would allow Idaho counties to identify high fire-risk federal lands as “catastrophic public nuisances.” A county that took such a step could request abatement from the federal agency or agencies that were responsible for maintaining said land. Essentially, a county could request brush clearing, thinning, and logging to reduce the threat of wildland fires. The legislation, although constitutional per an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, brought out the opposition in full force.

Status quo defenders told us that county commissioners and sheriffs don’t have the judgment to know when a fire risk is imminent — even if data that is publicly available indicates a risk exists. The question is, why are some members of the sportsman and environmental communities trying to distract Idahoans?

For example, the Idaho Conservation League’s Mission and Vision states that the organization exists to, “protect the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land you love.” If so, fire-risk abatement fits their mission statement to a T.

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 582 (passed the Idaho House but failed to get a hearing in the Idaho Senate), provided guidelines as to how lands transferred from the federal government to the state of Idaho would be managed for multiple use and sustained yield. It might surprise some, but the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires public lands to be managed for multiple use. Over the last 40 years, the BLM has increasingly deferred to environmentalists to define and, therefore, limit use. Again, opponents of the legislation just described don’t want to discuss the failure of federal land managers to follow the federal act’s multiple-use requirement, they would rather impugn the motives of those who call for a better management strategy.

At a minimum, people who oppose the transfer of federal lands to Idaho ought to embrace dramatic improvements for land management. If they don’t, the arguments for transfer will get more compelling with each passing year.

Fred Birnbaum is vice president of Idaho Freedom Foundation.