Utah Rep. Ken Ivory told Idaho lawmakers Monday the federal government has made promises, “solemn compacts,” and “solemn trusts” to dispose of all of the left over public land to states at statehood.
The sponsor of the Transfer of Public Lands Act in Utah laid the historical basis of the state law passed in 2011 that demands that the federal government give up title to more than 20 million of federal public lands in the State of Utah by December 31, 2014. Unlike a similar bill approved by both houses in Arizona, and vetoed by its GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, the Utah bill would not immediately sell off the lands.
Instead Ivory said, the state would manage them for multiple use just like federal lands are now with the proceeds going to the schools, similar to state lands. National parks, national monuments, Indian lands, wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges and similar lands would remain in federal ownership under the Utah model.
He acknowledged the legal burdens states face but it laid out the path states might have to base their case on, actions made between the states and the Continental Congress, the Constitution and later Congress in the 1830s. But his main point is states need to go on the offensive to assert their sovereign rights and legislation like Utah’s is the first step.
“Its time to have a difficult conversation with our governing partner,” Ivory said.
Lawmakers and many in the audience Monday liked the states right message, the hope Ivory presented that states could get control of the federal lands they cannot tax and come with all kinds of federal strings that have hindered traditional mining, timber, ranching and even recreation industries. Ivory said he doesn’t expect the federal government to yield.
“Our answer is we aren’t going to take no for an answer,” he said.
What is in it for the states is not so much the land but the resources below and growing on the land, he said. Utah expects billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue that currently go to the federal government. He expects the state will be able to dramatically increase forest and grazing revenues.
“We’re going to be more efficient and more responsive,” Ivory said.
Idaho lawmakers wanted to know how it adds up for them. Like Gov. Butch Otter, they have bristled at the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest that burned in 2012, part of the millions that has burned over the last 20 years.
Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik said 246,000 acres burned in Idaho County alone. He said conservative the fires burned 1.2 million board feet of timber.
Otter said earlier this year that every million board feet of harvested timber supports 13 family-wage jobs at $55,000 per year. Ivory suggested managing the federal lands like Utah manages its lands would prevent forest fires over time since the logging and thinning that would take place would drop fires to the ground where firefighters could easily extinguish them.
House Resources and Conservation Committee Chairman Lawerence Denney said he already has a draft bill circulating similar to the Utah bill but the time frame will be different so Idaho can watch what happens there.
Lawmakers’ reaction underscores the state’s go slow approach. Rep. Del Raybould, Rexburg, thinking about the more than $230 million the federal government paid to fight fires in Idaho in 2012.
“One big forest fire could eat up a big chunk of our budget,” he said.
And he was skeptical about the Utah approach to selling off the lands if it decided to sell. Right off the top 90 percent would go to the federal government to pay off the debt. Five percent would go to a school fund and the other 5 percent would go to the state’s general fund.
“If we sell off our lands we get the money,” Raybould said.
Sheep rancher Jeff Siddoway also expressed his skepticism the transfer would pay off unless the state could sell the land and keep all the proceeds for the schools. Most of the lands in southern Idaho are desert lands only economic for livestock grazing.
He noted that state lands cost ranchers more to graze than federal and Ivory said indeed, Utah planned to “adjust” grazing fees.
“If we looking for money for schools in grazing land were just beating our heads against the wall,” Siddoway said.
Left unsaid was that the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and other federal laws would remain in place. Groups like the Western Watersheds Project, which use these laws to push anti-grazing agendas, have had great success in state courts.
Still, the Utah law and an Idaho law allow lawmakers to express their support for states rights and even federal land transfer without facing the consequences of selling off the places people hike,hunt, fish, camp, motorcycle and snowmobile.
“States are separate independent sovereigns,” Ivory said. “Sometimes they have to act like it.”
The audience broke out in applause.