Idaho committees hear presentation on state assuming control over federal lands

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Utah Rep. Ken Ivory speaks to a joint session of the Idaho House and Senate Resources and Conservation Committees.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, was among the legislators who participated in a rare, joint session of both the Idaho House and Senate Resources and Conservation Committees on Monday, discussing how Idaho might assume control of otherwise federally controlled land. She was pretty direct in her assessment:

“This is about a hundred years late, but I’m glad we’re finally doing this,” she told IdahoReporter.com.

In the session, Utah Rep. Ken Ivory was invited to speak about the prospect of Idaho taking back control of more than 60 percent of land within the state—land currently under federal government control. “We’re not talking about blazing a new legal trail,” Ivory told the Idaho legislators. “We’re looking at what has already been done by Illinois, by Florida, by Louisiana and Missouri.”

In 2012, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in that state by 2014, setting the table for a potential legal battle. At issue is the question of who will control approximately 28 million acres of land in that state, and Ivory argues that individual states can do a better job managing their own lands.

“Our federal government is an absentee, centralized landlord that is broke,” he noted. “Idaho can do better.” In an elaborate presentation about the U.S. Constitution, court precedent and American land history, Ivory argued the case that each of the 50 states is constitutionally guaranteed the same abilities to control their own lands.

Yet, according to Ivory, the federal government has taken control of far greater portions of land in the Western states as it has in the Eastern states and Hawaii. “Idaho entered statehood only one year apart from North Dakota,” Ivory noted. “Yet the feds control 3 percent of North Dakota, and 63 percent of Idaho. That’s not right.”

At least one Idaho legislator is concerned about whether Idaho can afford to take control of otherwise federal lands within the state. “The biggest challenge we face right now is the question of what would we do if the federal government suddenly said ‘yes,’ and allowed us to take over these lands,” Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, told IdahoReporter.com. Denney is a former speaker of the House and is now chairman of the House Resources and Conservation Committee.

For example, he mentioned the cost of fighting fires in Idaho this past summer and fall. “We couldn’t just come up with the $300 million that it would take to protect the land.” Denny said that the federal government spent about that much money fighting fires in Idaho in 2012.

But Ivory argues that the threat of wildfires throughout the Western states has been made worse because federal environmental law prohibits the proper maintenance and deforestation that are necessary to keep the rural lands safe.

Additionally, Ivory contends that if Idaho had control of a majority of its own land, it could generate more tax revenue. “A state that cannot tax a majority of its own soil eventually ceases to be a sovereign state,” he told the committees, noting that Utah is on its way to having more tax revenue for essential services like public education.

“I’m sure there are significant costs to the state of Utah taking over these lands,” said Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, during the session, and asked Ivory, “Have you done any studies to determine what this process will cost your state?”

Ivory said such studies are under way, and agreed to provide such data when it becomes available.

Boyle predicts that Utah-styled legislation will emerge this session, and that it will likely pass. Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, agrees with Boyle that the legislation is necessary. “We need to do this for our children and grandchildren,” he told IdahoReporter.com. “We have tremendous resources in this state, and we need to begin using them for the betterment of Idaho, instead of Washington.”

“I need to know more,” Ward-Engelking told Idaho Reporter.com. “I don’t think that I got much of an answer to my question form Mr. Ivory, but anytime we can put more money into public education, that’s a good thing. I definitely want to know more.”

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