In the Idaho Republican Primary, ideas that don’t go far in a general election or are largely dismissed from the general debate often find life.
At least one U.S. Senate candidate, Neal Thompson of McCall, is calling for transferring federal lands in Idaho to the state. Back in the 1990s, the idea had wider support as lawsuits over endangered species and water quality were shutting down the timber industry across the state.
Idaho was making the second highest profit on its state lands per acre even surpassing Oregon. Only Washington, with some of the most valuable timber in the country was making more.
So it followed to many people that turning over the state’s federal lands could be more efficient and would benefit the state. Politically, the issue was as much a non-starter then as it is today nationally.
These lands are considered the people’s lands, our common birthright. Even in Idaho today, as so many private lands are being closed to access for hunting, motorized travel and recreation, the support for federal ownership and management has grown, not dropped.
My old boss Jerry Brady successfully forced Butch Otter during the gubernatorial election to back off his own earlier support for a bill that would have sold off public lands to pay for Hurricane Katrina victims. The sons and daughters of the Sagebrush Rebels of the early 1980s, came to realize they wouldn’t end up controlling those lands. Dot com millionaires would out bid them for their favorite tract and huge corporations would buy and sell the best lands for development.
But when Otter reversed himself, his offices switchboards were filled with angry rural people in his base who still supported transferring the public lands to the state. Their vision was that the state would manage these lands without any interference from people back east.
The wolf issue should teach us about that.
Thompson appeals to this view that Idaho could manage these lands better, that we would once again log and manage these lands to the benefit of the state and its citizens.
The biggest wrench in this thinking beyond politics is the cost of fighting fires. We are still fighting over the 9 million acres of roadless national forests that would go to state ownership under the land transfer proposals of people like Thompson. These lands are roadless because cutting the timber in these areas won’t even pay for the roads to get into them in many cases.
Then the state would be responsible for fighting the fires. Many of the people who want the state to own the land wish the federal government would stop more fires. They believe that if firefighters were just more aggressive and more of the land was logged, we would have less fires.
But there is no free lunch. More logging will cost more than it returns across much of the federal estate, especially in times of low prices like now.
The huge expanse of rangelands also has become more flammable and the federal firefighting team that Otter and Idaho lawmakers criticized last year would not be around to kick anymore. The state would still have to meet the federal environmental laws.
The fire people have been putting out 98 percent of the fires that start for years and the size of fires have gotten bigger, not smaller.
So unless the United States becomes so broke it is forced to sell off federal lands to cover its debts, don’t look for a major shift in policy. But as long as rural counties have in access of 90 percent public lands, leaving a small tax base like Custer County, don’t expect the idea of transferring lands to the states to go away in the West either.