Idaho Gov. Butch Otter carries the old Sagebrush Rebellion view that western states were short changed at statehood because they didn’ get all of the unsold federal land within their borders like eastern states did.
He repeated that Friday when he met with western governors in Utah. But Otter has become much too savvy on this issue to simply jump on board the band wagon that Utah has hitched up.
The Utah Legislature approved a bill earlier this year that demands the federal government turn over 30 million acres of federal land to them. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the law that all but a few fringe legal scholars believe is going no where.
Otter was asked by reporters what he thought and he expressed general support.
But Otter said he wanted to see the cost and benefits of such a move. He’s careful because he knows the political ramifications.
In 2005, when he was Idaho’s 1st District congressman, he co-sponsored a bill that would have required the Forest Service to sell 15 percent of national forests land to help pay for the cost of helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.
After his 2006 Democratic opponent, Jerry Brady, made it an issue in the gubernatorial campaign, Otter acknowledged he made a mistake and reversed his position.
“As an avid sportsman, a Grand Slam member of Ducks Unlimited and a life member of the Safari Club International, I understand the importance of public land both to our wildlife and to the hunting and fishing public,” Otter wrote.
Earlier this year Rick Santorum suggested selling off public land and Idahoans from all political stripes expressed opposition. The federal government owns 33.7 million acres in Idaho, almost 64 percent of the state’s land. Of that, 20.5 million acres are national forests and 11.9 million acres are owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Otter has a task force right now trying to figure out what to do about sage grouse. Since fire is the biggest threat the cost of fighting fire has got to be on his mind.
He told Romney this winter of his idea to shift management of some of the national forests to the state, which the presumptive GOP nominee supported. But it is far from a transfer.
If the land was transferred the state would have to pay for management. The state won’t get rich from its proceeds of its own desert lands let alone some of those federal lands.
Forests are a different story but nationwide the timber industry is suffering from lack of mill capacity because demand is so low. Yet drought and climate change is making fires bigger and more costly.
President Herbert Hoover proposed transferring to the states 190 million acres of public land that remained unsold in 1929. Facing the same kind of political pressure he didn’t offer the nation’s public wealth, its minerals along with the land.
The states including Utah turned him down and I doubt they will get another chance soon.