Roger Phillips: Public lands deserve protection, not liquidation

Like many people, I was bewildered that U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch recently voted in favor of a resolution that could allow the transfer of federal lands to states.

For the record, I think it’s a long shot at best the federal government will ever transfer title of its lands, but I will get to that later. It still concerns me that Idaho’s two senators are deaf to Idahoans’ loud-and-clear message to protect and preserve our public lands.

It’s an issue that unites a bear hunter in Orofino with a backcountry skier in Ketchum. Both know how important those lands are to the fabric of Idaho’s communities. Public lands keep people grounded in rural communities and drive others to leave cities to recreate and renew themselves in Idaho’s backcountry. If there’s a non-debatable motherhood-and-apple-pie issue in Idaho, it ought to be public lands.

What’s equally baffling is why these two senators would vote for this misguided legislation. Both have shown leadership and wisdom in managing federal lands. Crapo spent years crafting a balanced and comprehensive package for the Owyhee Initiative that satisfied a broad swath of Idaho’s citizenry from ranchers to backpackers and ATV riders to bighorn sheep hunters.

“The best way to make decisions about our environment and land is through cooperation and collaboration, and we have done that with the Owyhee Initiative proposal,” Crapo said after its passage.

Now he seems to be favoring a hostile takeover instead of “cooperation and collaboration.”

As for Risch, during his brief stint as Idaho’s governor, he put to rest a decades-old struggle over Idaho’s roadless lands by making most of them off limits to intensive development while loosening restrictions that made some lands challenging to manage. The Clinton administration signed off on Risch’s plan, and many called it a model for other states to follow in dealing with their roadless federal lands.

Earlier this month in the Statesman, Crapo tried to explain his recent vote with the Republican majority in a party-line 51-49 vote by saying that laying the groundwork for transferring federal lands doesn’t mean he actually supports doing it. That sounds a lot like the squishy substance that sticks to my truck’s tires when I drive through a cow pasture.

Risch has been quiet about his vote. Maybe he’s hoping it will blow by like a spring rainstorm and the sun will keep shining in his political world, but I think there’s a bigger storm brewing than either realize.

If Western politicians want to hitch their wagon to a losing proposition, transferring or selling federal lands is it. I think it’s an issue that will goad apathetic voters to the polls and make people vote across party lines. Selling the Forest Service and BLM lands where Idahoans camp, fish, hunt, hike, ski, snowmobile, ride motorcycles, ATVs, mountain bikes and horses, where they go for picnics, Sunday drives and to pick huckleberries, is just a bad idea.

Sell off granny’s secret huckleberry spot at your own peril, senators.

The idea of federal lands being traded or sold off has been around since the 1970s during the failed “sagebrush rebellion.” It was a bad idea then, and I would venture it’s an even bigger loser now brought on by politicians a little too comfortable in their seats, or who are trying to make a name for themselves more for political reasons than practical ones.

Look at Texas senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, for example. He can pander to the Tea Party crowd without worrying about the backlash from his home state because Texas is less than 2 percent federal lands.

I expect this nonsense from the Statehouse. Demanding the feds to turn over about 62 percent of Idaho’s land it manages is good political theater. It may win votes in places like Custer County, where about 90 percent of the county is federally owned, and they aren’t happy with how it’s managed.

It’s a jaded, cynical attempt to turn back the clock. Because this isn’t about who owns the lands, it’s about how the lands are managed. There’s a sad sentiment that lingers among some Idahoans that if we could go back to Grandpa’s days, all would be good in Idaho. Mostly it’s in rural Idaho that has leaked jobs and population for decades, and the “Feds” are supposedly to blame.

That attitude has become toxic, and it’s what fuels people like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy to nearly start a modern range war because he didn’t want to pay the federal government for grazing fees he owed.

It also ignores the fact that federal lands are owned by all Americans, not just those who live near them in the West. Show me the benefit of land transference to a family from back East who wants to go rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. When they’re awed by the rugged, pristine beauty of the Middle Fork, I doubt they will clamor for the federal government to turn it over to the state.

Mainly, it won’t fly because it’s bad policy, and I think the majority of Idahoans will rise up and loudly reaffirm that. That’s not to say I have no gripes with the current management of federal lands. Most are under-managed, under-funded and borderline neglected. I think, even when we agree locally and nationally on what’s good management for federal lands, getting anything to change is a byzantine, glacial process mired in red tape.

But Crapo and Risch have shown the ability to navigate that bureaucracy and come out the other side with something lasting and meaningful that benefits Idahoans. It’s not easy, but it’s a better option than aligning with wingnuts and their hot-breathed, hostile-take-over rhetoric that’s doomed to failure because it’s a stupid, far-fetched idea borne out of frustration rather than reality.