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.
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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.
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.
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