The attempt by some Idaho politicians to take over 34 million acres of public lands continues to lurch forward. Depending on who you ask however, the controversial proposal is either A) losing steam based on significant questions that have been raised, or B) gaining momentum as Utah considers the possibility of waging a costly legal battle in the courts.
Despite the findings by a legislative study committee in December 2014 not to proceed with litigation, proponents of public land seizure have continued to encourage Idaho’s legislative leaders to join with Utah in a potential federal lawsuit that would likely be decided in the Supreme Court. Despite pleas from land grabbers and leaders from our neighboring state, the Idaho Legislature refused to enact legislation in 2015 and 2016 in support of a public lands takeover. Additionally, both Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden have spoken out in opposition to a seizure of Idaho’s national forests and other public lands.
There is another path: working collaboratively with interested stakeholders. Idaho communities are coming together to resolve longstanding challenges that face our public lands including access, fire risk, land and water protection, wildlife habitat restoration and economic. Together with the timber industry, wildlife advocates, ranchers, local governments, economic development interests and others, the Idaho Conservation League is working to find win-win solutions that can restore and protect our public lands, create jobs and ensure a lasting public land legacy for future generations.
Takeover Has Constitutional Challenges
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has joined critics of the takeover, pointing out in a debate (at 53:55) with his challenger in the 2014 Republican Primary that, “we cannot simply argue away…explain away the language of our own constitution.” As Wasden told the Twin Falls Times-News, "We cannot take back something that we never owned…. We’re the ones who said, ,Don’t give us the land.’ We don’t have a good legal case."
“[T]he people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof.” Idaho Constitution
Wasden has also dispelled the notion that other states are preparing for a legal showdown over the issue. His detailed response to a survey from Idaho Education News points out that he’s reached out to several attorneys general, and maintains that, “not in any way can it be truthfully proposed that five Western states are ready to join Utah in any proposed lawsuit.”
In 2016, when the Idaho Legislature was considering a bill that attempted to rewrite history, arguing that a transfer of all public lands to the state would fulfill a promise made at the time of statehood, a legal opinion from the Idaho Attorney General affirmed "this premise has not support in the law."
Takeover Has Economic Challenges
Critics have also pointed out the potential direct costs to Idaho taxpayers. A report from the Conservation Economics Institute, commissioned by ICL, found that the proposal could cost taxpayers over $1 billion after 5 years and more than $2 billion after 20 years. Such losses would necessitate the sale of large swaths of land, something Idahoans have routinely objected to.
Another report, from the Congressional Research Service, found that the federal government spent $392 million managing lands in Idaho in 2012-far outstripping the Idaho Department of Land’s initial back-of-the-napkin estimate, which remains the only “official” state assessment of the costs of the proposal from the State of Idaho.
Finally, a 2014 University of Idaho study found that management of 16 million acres-just 60% of the lands proposed for takeover-would result in losses to the state of $111 million each year. While those findings should give public lands takeover advocates pause, a review of that study conducted by the Conservation Economics Institute, Dr. Evan Hjerpe found serious shortcomings in that analysis, meaning that the true costs would be even higher.
So… Where Does That Leave Us?
Land grabbers would have us believe that Idahoans are fed up with the federal administration of our parks, forests and other public lands. In reality, a 2012 poll conducted by respected polling firm Moore Information found that over 73% of Idahoans feel that one of the things that the federal government does well is manage our forests, parks and public lands. Instead of the Sagebrush Rebellion, this should be called the Astroturf Rebellion. After all, much of the resolution passed by the Idaho Legislature back in 2012 was taken verbatim from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an effort sponsored by the Koch brothers and Big Oil.
What Do Idahoans Really Want?
What we have learned from working on this issue over the course of the past years is that Idahoans:
- Love their public lands and want to ensure access for future generations to enjoy Idaho traditions like fishing, hunting and camping
- Agree that Idaho’s Constitution and Statehood Act prohibits claims to additional federally-administered lands
- Realize that Idaho can’t afford to take on the monumental task of managing multimillion dollar wildfires, not to mention the costs associated with managing thousands of miles of roads and trails
- Are concerned that the federal lands takeover undermines the ongoing, successful work of collaborative efforts around the state to find locally-developed solutions to address management concerns
- Don’t want to see our public lands sold off to the highest bidder.