Legislators contemplate economic benefit of state control of federal lands
Some members of the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee are suggesting that there is a better way to finance some general fund expenditures in the Gem State: Securing the otherwise federally controlled lands in Idaho and putting them to good use for local and statewide purposes.
“With the natural resources that reside just in my district alone (District No. 8) there are probably enough assets to pay for both the state’s public education and transportation needs,” said Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly.
Gestrin serves on Federal Lands Interim Committee, which is comprised of both Senate and House members. At a recent meeting, he and the other committee members spent nearly seven hours hearing presentations about the legal, practical and economic implications of the state taking control of otherwise federally controlled land within the state.
One of the presenters that the committee members heard was David Groeschl, a forestry expert with the Idaho Department of Lands.
“Mr. Groeschl estimated that securing the federally controlled lands could bring us between $51 and $75 million in added state revenue,” explained Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. “It appears that he’s suggesting that this could be an annual revenue increase and, while this is only an estimate, it is nonetheless very substantial,” she told IdahoReporter.com. “This could be tremendously beneficial for the funding of public education in our state.”
The debate about who should be controlling the federally controlled land within Idaho has been discussed among members of the Legislature since at least last spring. In April, the Idaho Senate approved two legislative resolutions concerning Idaho taking control of more than 60 percent of land within the state, land that is currently under federal government control.
House Concurrent Resolution 21, which passed 26-6 with one abstention, calls for a study to be conducted on how Idaho would best approach the federal government with a demand for the land. House Concurrent Resolution 22 was approved by a narrower margin, 21-13. It requests the state issue a “demand for title” to the federal government.
Both measures passed in the House on March 21.
Placing federal lands under the control of the state government could open up opportunities for the expansion of logging and timber production, and the mining of mineral resources, economically productive activities that are often prohibited on federal lands. Yet the effort undertaken by the Legislature and the governor earlier this year to secure the federal land in Idaho is only the beginning of a lengthy legal process.
Groeschl estimates that it could take Idaho 10-15 years to secure its federal lands, a calculation that Nuxoll finds frustrating. “I think he’s being extremely conservative with that calculation,” she told IdahoReporter.com. “I appreciate him being cautious, but I don’t think it would take that long.”
Nuxoll admits that the Department of Lands cost estimates for Idaho securing and managing federal lands are hypothetical, and that the issue warrants more investigation. “I want to study the issue more and see the pros and cons … but I see it as upside, especially for getting our education system funded and even funding our prison system.”
But at least one member of the committee is skeptical about the projections of increased state revenues made by the Department of Lands.
“There have been people in Idaho going back many years suggesting that we can get education for free, that we can get somebody else to pay for it,” commented Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “When the lottery was established it was suggested that lottery ticket purchasers could pay for public education. This land comes with environmental liabilities that are unquantified. These costs could amount to much more than the state could earn,” he said.
Burgoyne added that “we already have 2 million acres of public endowment land that are earning $40 to $50 million a year in state revenues, which only amounts to about $20 to $25 a year per acre. I would suggest that there are very few businesses that would regard that as a good return.”
Gestrin, however, remains more optimistic about Idaho’s prospects. “We’d have to manage this land in a logical fashion, but I think Idaho can manage Idaho better than anyone in Washington, D.C,” he told IdahoReporter.com. “It is certainly worth further analysis.”