Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen told a legislative committee last week that state takeover of federal lands in Idaho would be disastrous for the county and for the rest of the state.
The Federal Lands Interim Committee hearing on Dec. 4 was the third since the committee was created last spring to study a demand by the Legislature that all federal land in Idaho except national park and designated wilderness land be transferred to state ownership.
In addition to Schoen’s testimony, last week’s hearing included statements from Idaho and Valley county commissioners and from representatives of The Nature Conservancy and mining, snowmobile and ATV groups.
In his allotted 15 minutes of speaking time and in a nine-page written statement, Schoen contended that transfer of the land would:
- Leave the state with inadequate resources to manage it, including for firefighting.
- Eliminate federal payments to counties under the Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools programs with no way to make up for that loss.
- Reduce the right of public access.
- Subject the lands to privatization and development exempt from local land-use planning.
“Vast, open public lands and access to them is the essence of Idaho and the West,” Schoen stated. “Those who support this public lands transfer proposal are threatening to take this right, this gem of the Gem State, away from Idaho citizens, the public and the world; perhaps not intentionally, but it would be the inevitable result, because Idaho is not equipped, prepared or capable of managing multiple use across such a vast landscape.”
Schoen pointed out that the U.S. Forest Service’s cost to fight just the Beaver Creek Fire in Blaine County earlier this year exceeded $26 million. He noted that during the fire, the incident command post north of Hailey was set up on private property whose owner had not charged any money for its use. However, Schoen stated, when the Forest Service sought to expand the post onto adjacent state land, he had to mediate between the agency and the Idaho Department of Lands over the daily lease rate.
“Even in the middle of the direst emergency, the issue blocking the use of state land for camp expansion and incident management was money … .” Schoen stated.
He also pointed to an unofficial shooting range on state land in Ohio Gulch as an example of lax management of property that the state already owns.
“The shooting range is a rogue shooting range that has been allowed to exist for years now,” he stated. “The state earns nothing from this activity. It simply occurs. No one runs it; no one is responsible for it. It’s full of trash. There are no rules or guidelines for its safety.”
Regarding federal payments to counties, Schoen pointed out that in fiscal year 2013, 44 Idaho counties containing 32.6 million acres of federal land received a total of $26.3 million in federal PILT payments and $28.9 million through the Secure Rural Schools program.
In his testimony, Valley County Commissioner Gordon Cruikshank said payments from the Secure Rural Schools program are being reduced each year and may be eliminated. He said his county government receives $1.5 million from the program but used to get $3.5 million each year from timber harvests.
Cruikshank urged the Legislature to support the Community Forest Trust Pilot project, initiated by commissioners from five counties to provide a way for counties to transition away from payments under Secure Rural Schools. The proposal is for “community forests” to be designated from an initial 200,000 acres of federal forest land and managed in trust by the state for the benefit of the county governments and local communities. The lands would remain the property of the United States and no designated national forest roadless areas would be included.
Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum and one of two Democrats on the 10-member committee, said one more hearing may be held before or during the 2014 legislative session, but additional hearings are more likely to be scheduled for after the session. The committee must submit a report on the issue to the full Legislature by January 2015.
Stennett said she thought a fair representation of both sides has been presented throughout the hearings.
“We will have thoroughly vetted it by the time we do the report,” she said.
Greg Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org