Last week Rep. Ken Ivory, R of West Jordan, Utah, came north to Idaho, up out of the smog (worst in the country), to tell Idaho’s lawmakers that they should make a play to take over the U.S. public lands like Utah has proposed to do.

We predicted this would happen because Utah’s legislature gets more of its ideas from ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) than about any other state.  Founded by the Koch Brothers, ALEC creates model (right wing) legislation and tries to get them introduced and passed. They have been very successul lately in Wisconsin and Michigan. ALEC  had its national meeting last fall in Salt Lake City, and one of their big ideas is to abolish the U. S. public lands.

More than any other legal structure the Western United States is defined by its relatively large blocks of public land: national parks and monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, BLM (Bureau of Land Management overseen lands), and miscellaneous others such as military bases, expermental areas such as the Idaho National Laboratory and the Hanford (WA) Reservation. The Western states are called “the public land states.”

Eastern United States land ownership is quite different. Representative Ivory and ALEC think the West should become like the East.  If the Eastern states can manage their lands, why can’t Idaho, he asked?  He said the Eastern states had been given their lands by the government so why does Idaho (and Utah and the other Western states) have all this federal ownership?

Though his premise was flawed, many who heard his pitch seemed impressed.

Actually, Eastern states don’t manage their lands. Most of the lands in these states are private property and so they are managed by the individuals, businesses, and groups that own the lands.  Many of ALEC-like proposals in fact propose selling off the national forests, wildlife refuges and the like. However, in Utah’s plan the federal government would keep the national parks, and Utah would presumably hit a bonanza with all the oil, gas, coal, oil shale, trona, phosphate, iron ore, copper and other minerals they would lease or sell to corporations on the other, larger portion, of the former public lands.

Perhaps Utah might be able to do this. However, lately the federal government has been leasing public lands in Utah at a furious rate. The feds keep much of the money with the state only getting a cut. Under federal law certain minerals, called “hard rock” minerals such as gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, platinum, nickel are given away free to mining companies by the U.S. government. This is a provision of the apparently impossible to amend 1872 general mining law. Whether mining companies would support state land ownership where they had to pay for what they now get free is a question that needs to be answered.  They might if environmental protection is waved.

Unfortunately for Idaho, other than the leasible phosphate rock, almost all of Idaho’s minerals are of the hard rock variety which generates no royalties. Most of the legislators were not so much interested in the minerals, however, as management of the national forests and rangelands.  A huge area of central Idaho is almost entirely national forest. Much of it is protected by Act of Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.  In total about 2/3 of Idaho is U.S. public land.

The major argument Representative Ivory made suggesting that Idaho would manage these lands better was the approximately 1.5 million acres of Idaho forest fires last summer which burned mostly on the national forests. Ivory said and others have spoken similarly that the federal government does not engage in “fire smart management,” and emphasizes conservation too much. Ivory could have added that many millions of acres more of public lands burned in the West last summer in other states.

Ivory didn’t make clear how the forests could be managed in a fire smart way because the cause of the fires was the giant drought that affects all states of the West to some degree as well as the Plains states to an even greater degree, but where there are few forests.

Most of coniferous forests in Idaho, especially pine, are stressed for water, dying or already dead, this is not limited to Idaho. All the Western states are losing losing pine trees on  tens of millions of acres of forest lands to the mountain pine bark beetle and other insects and diseases. This great dying is not limited to the West even. British Columbia and Alberta have suffered equally, and now the beetles in Canada spreading eastward.

Why is this happening . . . federal management?

The bark beetle pandemic is caused by warm winters and water stressed trees. While the winter of 1992-3 has been colder than normal and just the sort of thing that kills beetles, the majority of the pine is already dead.

Those who would deemphasize conservation as a principle of forest management are usually trying to politely say they would log off the trees before they died. However, B.C. and Alberta are places where logging is never at all restrained. They have tried to cut (or “harvest”) their way ahead of the beetle spread. They have had no success whatsoever.

Some say the dead forests are a great fire hazard, but if you have spent time in dead coniferous forests, walked around, it is easy to see that they are less flammable than live green, but dry forests. The flammable  oils are gone, leaving only cellulose to burn, and the dead forests, now with no pine needles, are much less able to sustain a mighty crown forest fire.

The feds have spent a lot of money trying to protect the so-called “urban-wildland” interface, e.g., houses built up against the forests. They have been quite successful because the technology has advanced to protect structures and communities. This is done by water and fire retardant drops, not by putting big fires out. The large fires Ivory spoke of were in the backcountry where there is no way to extinguish large fires until the weather changes.  Forest fires can be “herded.”

It is important to note that the annual fire season is in fact a source of local revenue from outside the state. Huge amounts of money are spent managing the forest fires and putting out the small ones — hundreds of millions of dollars went into central Idaho’s economy last summer from the federal government, an amount that would be impossible for Idaho to generate, especially if their revenue from state forest management consisted of trying to sell the already dead trees to timber companies.

Of course, last summer in Idaho the air was polluted from early July until October by the giant fires. This hurt the tourist business that is the mainstay of the central Idaho economy in the summer. The air was almost unbreathable.  Many businesses made up the deficit in tourists, however, by serving fire crews and support.

It seems doubtful that Idaho has the resources to manage the federal public lands. In fact the federal government loses money except for the sale of energy minerals and a profit from forestry in the states that are truly good at growing trees — Western Oregon and Western Washington. These things make the whole thing a net plus for revenue.

- – - – -

Local news on this. Idaho Lawmakers Hear Presentation on Utah’s Effort to Get Control of Federal Lands. Magic Valley Times-News.  By Melissa Davlin.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

38 Responses to Utah legislator tries to sell Idaho legislature on plan to take over our public lands

  1. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    The prospect of the west losing federal public lands is unsettling. I moved from Idaho to Maine where I stayed for 7 years. The primary reason I moved west again was because of the wilderness areas, national forests and parks, BLM and other federal lands. When I was in High School back in the early 1950s Idaho had one state park at the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
    The land for Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park was donated to Idaho by her son Virgil McCrosky. Idaho finally accepted it after he said he would maintain it during his life

    There is going to be an increasing pressure for recreational lands in the future.

  2. avatar Larry Keeney says:

    The sage brush rebellion idiots are really scary. Talk about, “Burning the furniture to stay warm” idiology. It seems to be an easy sell to the same people that want wolves gone and an elk in every pot. The proponents seem to be cataloged into two groups; 1)those that want it for profit and 2)those that want government out of thier hunting and recreational use of the lands such as ATVs etc. I can follow the thinking of the profit seekers like the Koch Brothers, that’s just plain greed but I can’t figure out those that have nothing to gain. It’s like trying to get my brain around the infinity of the solar system. I suppose it could be spun as a gun control measure in disguise, after all if there are no public lands that certainly limits the need for firearms.

  3. avatar Rita K. Sharpe says:

    I lived in the Midwest for most of my 30plus years and have lived to close to some big cities with all their satellite towns doting the landscape. I have had the pleasure of seeing the beauty out West and how sad it would be to see the West,slowly being like the East.

  4. If you want to se how Idaho manages state lands, just visit Payete Lake next to MCCall, Idaho. The public is shut off from most of the Payette Lake shoreline because it is leased to wealthy cabin owners. The Simplot family has large holdings on the shoreline as do other wealthy families.
    The State has been busily trading the USFS for land on the west side of Cascade Reservoir with the intent of converting federal land to state land to make it available for leases. The public will be excluded.

  5. avatar Leslie says:

    There are a lot of other voices in Utah. SLC is sold out twice a year for its Outdoor Convention. There is a big push for hundreds of outdoor suppliers plus people for Obama to designate a Greater Canyonlands.

    http://www.suwa.org/issues/greatercanyonlands/

    In the final analysis, how popular would Ivory’s plan be in Utah or ID?

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Leslie,

      There have been a number of polls on the idea of selling the public lands — polls in Utah and elsewhere in the West. It is not popular, but in these very one-sided partisan states, there is scant perception among the public that their legislatures would really do this.

      The inherent unpopularity of the idea is why proponents push the idea of state ownership rather than auctioning off the lands. There is a natural tendency for the slightly informed person to say, “of course we folks in Utah (Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, etc.) would manage the land better than the distant D.C. bureaucrats.

      I say “slightly informed” because so many people who like the public lands have little knowledge of who really manages them, what various lands laws are, and what is the difference between the Forest Service, BLM, Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

      Significantly a ballot measure in Arizona last fall, however — a ballot measure that tried to take the public lands — failed.

  6. avatar Craig says:

    Good thing we have the left wing taking care of these problems! They have done a great job since obama was elected.

  7. avatar Leslie says:

    Though I do have to say that I was quite appalled when I stopped this Nov. at Dinosaur Monument and the ranger told me she could really understand UT wanting some public lands back, and esp. AZ she said. If federal workers think like this then…

  8. avatar Louise Kane says:

    Ralph just how would the state gain management control over federal land. Presumably the federal government would have to cede that right to the state? How would that happen and to what advantage to the federal govt? Even if the federal govt loses money it seems almost certain that federal funds would be needed to augment state management.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Louise Kane,

      During the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s they tried to assert that the states in the West had somehow been discriminated against in not gaining title to the the U.S. public lands (the “public domain”) as the Eastern states did.

      The federal courts rejected this argument in part because the Eastern states were not given title to an exceptional amount of federal land at the time of their statehoods. In fact, it was the Western states that tended to get generous grants from the federal government, especially Utah and Arizona, which got two sections of public land per township (a township has 36 sections — square miles).

      Of course, can you imagine how small is the number of people who know the history of public lands or of what happened at statehood?

      So it looks like any transfer would have to come from Congress. Right now Congress passes pretty much no laws at all, lurching from one manufactured crisis to the next.

  9. avatar JB says:

    Two big problems with this type of proposal that haven’t yet been discussed. First, if federal public lands were ceded to states, you can be sure at least some of the land would be privatized (see Larry’s post above). Which land? The land easiest to access and most useful to companies/individuals is that in the valleys between mountain ranges (read = winter wildlife habitat). The second major problem is WATER. Whether states privatize lands, or sell off mineral or oil and gas rights, all of these uses require water, which is becoming increasingly scarce in the West. There is little doubt that state “management” of federal lands would worsen the problem.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Selling off the public lands would upset so many existing contracts,access routes, relationships between counties, states, cities, and other governments that everything would mire down in endless lawsuits. At the same time there would be chaos on the ground with no organized control of grazing areas, fire fighting (or ignition watching), conflict between user groups, on and on.

      These ideological state legislators might be nice looking white, former Mormon missionaries; but in fact they are unwitting revolutionaries. They just think they are conservatives.

      • avatar Maska says:

        Well stated, Ralph. These are truly radical proposals.

      • avatar Craig says:

        Don’t worry Ralph, Obama will fix everything! He’s a Democrate and all will be well now that he can push his agenda! He’s done such a great job this far! I’d bet we as a country will be so much better off with his 4 years of amazing leadership it will be amazing!
        I on the other hand would rather run to the hills!

        • avatar ramses09 says:

          ANd Romney would be better? NO – what choice did we have? The lesser of 2 evils?
          Romney would of SOLD this country to the first bidder. Just take a look @ his track record with the company he has stock in. He just closed (his co.) a plant in Northern IL. last fall. He has no qualms about kicking people or land to the curb. & Ryan, he is the devil’s son imho.

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      Yes, this is concerning.

  10. avatar frank renn says:

    So how will the state pay for expenses like fighting forest fires. The 2012 Trinity fire alone cost the feds over 40 million dollars.

    • avatar JEFF E says:

      they have not thought that far ahead.

      Call it the bright shiny object syndrome.

      Eventually it would be you and I, as the state working class, would carry the burden, because the resource rapers and pillagers should not be expected to bear the cost, as it would stand in the way of profit’s.

      Standard political playbook.

      • avatar Derek Farr says:

        You’re exactly right. During his presentation to the joint committees last week, Rep. Ken Ivory admitted that the state of Utah was just now studying the effect of a bill that was signed into law last year that attempts to seize more than 3 million acres from the federal government. They have no idea what the net effects or costs will be. Any Idaho legislator who votes for a similar bill this session is abdicating his/her responsibilities to the people of this great state.

    • avatar ramses09 says:

      excellent question frank, they’ll probably run to the feds for the money.

  11. avatar jburnham says:

    Attempts to turn over federal land to the states in this manner won’t be necessary if the sagebrush rebel tenets are enshrined in the so called “collaborative” forest management policies that are gaining popularity.

    Many of the “collaborative” proposals have plenty in common with sagebrush rebel beliefs. I hear little argument from “collaborators” that locals should manage the surrounding federal lands. Both seem to believe federal lands should be used first and foremost for resource extraction to benefit the local communities surrounding them. Both believe in limiting the scope of public input on these management questions.

    “Collaborative” agreements may seem like a better deal because they throw greens a bone with road closures, Wilderness, and promised restoration. But they’re often just a back door to enshrining the tenets of quid pro quo extraction for protection, local control of federal lands, mandated extraction and limiting of public input.

    I’m not arguing that collaboration as commonly understood is undesirable, or that all “collaborative” projects are this way. But it’s undeniable that many of these projects advance goals very similar to those of the sagebrush rebels while using “collaboration” as a cover from criticism and public input.

    We need to scrutinize “collaborative” proposals just as much as the sagebrush rebels’ proposals.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      An interesting read and guessing, you’ve already seen it, jburnham:
      http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/collaborative-forest-management-what-the-faca/

    • avatar IDhiker says:

      My local county commissioners (Ravalli County, Montana) are very into this concept of “collaboration.” Their goal is to rejuvenate the dead timber industry in the county by opening USFS lands to heavy logging. It seems like a crackpot scheme, but they really are believers. They also buy into “Agenda 21.”

      It’s a depressing county to live in…with the local electorate, these commissioners are “commissioners for life!”

      • avatar IDhiker says:

        Also, here in Ravalli County, Keith Kubista, representing “Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife,” testified to the county commission pushing this same agenda. He claimed the USFS is just letting the forests burn, and that the Feds and Montana FWP have made Ravalli County into a “predator pit.”

        Needless to say, I have listened to Kubista testify to the FWP commission in Helena on how he wants wolves eliminated. SFW and Kubista are simply fronting for industry. Heavy logging, mining, and road building are not going to help big game.

    • avatar JB says:

      jburnham:

      A collaborative process resulted in a relatively moderate wolf management plan in Utah. Unfortunately, Don Peay (of SFW) went over the heads of the UDWR folks to his buddies in the legislature to codify his favored ‘no wolves in Utah’ policy. My point: This anecdote conflicts with your claim: collaboration resulted in a better outcome for environmentalists/conservationists. Unfortunately, this “win” was usurped by the typical “command-and-control” approach. Interestingly, this expert-driving, command-and-control approach is the dominant approach in wildlife management. It seems to me it would be hard for collaborative outcomes to be worse for wolves than what we are seeing right now?

      • avatar jburnham says:

        I’m not claiming that collaborative processes can’t/don’t result in good outcomes or that they shouldn’t be used. The point I’m trying to make is that “collaboration” can just as easily be a veneer used to sell sagebrush rebel ideas in a prettier package.

        I’m all for any tool that will bring better outcomes while allowing the public our fair say. Of course, the term “collaboration” covers quite a bit of ground. By the time the media in western states has finished swooning over the mere mention of the word there is little room to examine the values, assumptions and processes actually at use in these so called “collaborations”.

        I’m just making the case for skepticism.

  12. avatar Dameon says:

    This scares me more than anything else, But with a Democratic senate that is even more Liberal than before and a democratic president even if he has a lackluster environmental record and a supreme court that leans Liberal and remember that when Obama picks two new supreme court judges he will pick liberal leaning ones the Chances that this will happen are slim.That being the case even if despite those things the the senate seriously considers this demand I predict the public will rise up and oppose it in such huge numbers that they will back down. I urge anyone who seriously disagrees with this idea to join or support the Utah Wilderness or Southern Utah Wilderness Association. I feel the need to remind anybody who this scares that you can always protest and if enough people do this they will take notice. There are already enough people in Utah that are against it that Utah is toning it down or at least pretending to.They have hinted recently that they might be open to protecting some of it although I don’t Believe them. The Idea failed in Colorado and Twice in Arizona Last Year.

  13. avatar Louise Kane says:

    http://forcechange.com/55289/support-coalition-to-end-michigan-wolf-hunt/#gf_1

    petition to support state based initiative to prevent wolf hunts in MI

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