Ed’s Notes

hunter and dog
Into Reality, Out of Steam
2014.9.14

Maybe, thankfully, we can turn our attention to matters more pleasant then the subject of previous notes (below). But do not take your eye completely off the game: when there is potential of major money at stake, there will be people who will go underground but never give up.

The concerted efforts by western states where borders encompass considerable federally-administered public lands to grab those lands seem to be running into reality and out of steam. This is according to a recent article in the Idaho Statesman and looks to be well-sourced.

Reality comes in the form of legalities and economics, as usual: one, the states have not found a legal path that works to make the grab; two, there is no pot of gold at the end of the grab – states cannot afford to keep the lands if they could take them and would have no alternative but to dispose of them.

The gaping hole that let the steam out of this locomotive is, and was always going to be, political. When state politicians held public meetings on proposals to take the federal lands, they found out most people hate the idea. These are political constituents from across a political spectrum that includes everyone except those few who might be able to cash in and the odd Shi'ite libertarian. Trying to take away a lifestyle that westerners love is bad politics.

Comments from the relevant politicians indicate that these state proposals are not going anywhere. Pleasant as it would be to believe that and go on enjoying our public lands, we will have to keep an eye out. Bad ideas, like latent cancer cells, can hide in the body politic until favorable conditions let them rise again.

Good can come of this issue, as noted by one of the Idaho politicians who has co-chaired the legislative committee looking into it. If the result is federal land agencies listening attentively to state and local concerns, it could have a positive outcome. Most of us have had occasional heartburn with one aspect or another of federal lands management. Maybe it is time for well-intentioned people to have serious discussions about the way things are going but we do not have to be talking divorce again.

Previous Post
Takeover a Non-starter?
2014.4.9

The label “non-starter” was applied several times to the idea of Idaho taking over federal lands in Idaho in one of the public hearings held by a state legislative committee looking into the issue.

Seeking nullification of one of the very best ideas this country has ever come up with—holding substantial pieces of America in common for current and future generations—would seem to be an obvious “non-starter” to most of us. We must concede, though, that some see nothing wrong with an unbroken stretch of “no trespassing” signs from sea to shining sea.

At this particular hearing in Boise, the first speaker to use the “non-starter” phrase was the lawyer for one of Idaho’s Native American tribes, the Coeur d’ Alenes. It was echoed by spokespersons for Idaho Outfitters and Guides as well as the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers organization. The rest of the Idaho tribes also spoke against lands transfer in polite but firm tones.

Several conservation organizations sent representatives to the hearing. Not one spoke in favor of the transfer idea.

The only groups at this session who did come out in relative favor of Idaho taking over federally-managed lands were livestock grazing organizations and their support was somewhat qualified. One of their spokesmen pointed out that Idaho would need to bring its grazing lease rate, currently more than $6 per AUM (animal unit month) on state-owned lands, more in line with the federal lands rate of less than $1.50.

This, obviously, is a nutshell account of an hours-long hearing. One of the questions raised by several speakers deserves special attention: Where would Idaho finds the tens of millions of dollars to fight forest and rangeland fires such as we have seen in recent years? Another: How would Idaho manage for public use when state lands now are not considered public lands—although recreational use is tolerated—and the Idaho Department of Lands budget for recreational use is zero?

If quick disposal of federally-managed lands is the goal, these questions are moot.

It is too easy to dismiss the whole matter as a cockeyed show of bravado that might, at worst, cost the state’s taxpayers a nasty legal bill and not go anywhere. Unfortunately, it is bigger than that and Idaho is in play as part of a national agenda. The who’s who in the background is intriguing but best left to future elucidation.

Predicting an outcome at this point would be foolishly premature but it looks as though the tribes have a compelling claim to the legal high ground. Treaties trump legislation, especially when vigorously defended.

If 21st century Indians end up spoiling the raid on the lands where they still hold ancient rights, the rest of us who live for the wild Idaho experience will be in their debt. The historical irony will be thick enough to slice.

Previous Post
Sagebrush Rebellion Redux?

Hunters, anglers and all others who value Idaho’s backcountry need to heed new murmurs of mischief about our public lands. Bad ideas seem to have a life of their own, surviving the hammer blows of history.

Early in this year’s legislative session we heard some rumbling in the Idaho statehouse that sounded like a Sagebrush Rebellion Redux but the immediate causes of inflammation were not evident, as they were back in the Reagan era. So the reasons that our state legislature was hearing from a representative of the Utah legislature—that citadel of enlightened lawmaking—about new plans to transfer federal lands to state ownership seemed unclear.

What finally emerged took the form of a resolution that contains a long list of itches and complaints, many of which we have heard before but a few that are novel. The convoluted text explains the subject but provides no clarity of the why now? question. Rather than risk mischaracterizing anyone’s handiwork or bearing the responsibility for boring any dear reader to death right here, I suggest reading this thing—House Concurrent Resolution No. 21—for yourself on the official Idaho web page.

The House did take action on the resolution by setting up a study committee, which was called upon to hold public meetings before the next session. These meetings will be your best immediate opportunity to let our state leaders understand just how much you like the idea of losing access to your wide open Idaho spaces forever.

When promoters tell you—and they will—this will not be the result if federal lands are carved off, ask for a definition of “disposal.”

Idaho and Utah are not the only places public lands are under pressure. Nevadans have been hearing similar talk. Not one to indulge in conspiracy thinking, it is nevertheless obvious to me that a national movement is afoot.

The U. S. House version of the federal budget contains language that must be taken seriously. The language is, probably purposely, unclear but the gist of it is that the country has all this public land that is not doing much and that we could just turn it into deficit reduction by selling it off to the highest bidder.

A point not often made about the expense of keeping our public lands traditions alive is that the operating costs of all federal lands agencies added together do not make a decent rounding error in the national budget. The two biggest federal land management agencies were set up to largely fund themselves.

When politicians flag the bloody shirt of federal deficit in our faces while decrying the extent of public land holdings, we are obviously not hearing the whole message which is more about ideology than finance. Congress tackled the difficult question of lands value in a 2010 report and came up with $408 billion. That is a nice chunk of change and would be a welcome addition to anyone’s retirement plan but would not write off five months of last year’s federal deficit.

Anyone inclined to read this far, I will assume for the sake of brevity, understands just how bad this idea is. Our readership probably does not include those who do not know or care about public lands and surely not the billionaires who look longingly to the choice bits of world they have failed so far to control.

It is hard for anyone who simply wants to live a western life and leave others alone but issue needs your participation. Our legislature showed the wisdom to take the matter to the Idaho public through an interim committee process. We should do the courtesy of showing up at hearings in our local areas.

Hunting Editor Ed Mitchell grew up in a ranching and farming family in southern Idaho, graduated from the College of Idaho and returned to the state following a European tour of Army duty during the Cold War era. He covered state and local politics, courts, agriculture and the outdoors as a newspaperman before beginning an entrepreneurial career with his own hunting and fishing periodical and books. He is an original partner in establishing the Idaho Fish ‘n’ Hunt website in the early days of the World Wide Web. He was associated with conservation entities for most of his adult life before retiring to the hills and forests of southwest Idaho.