Proposals to take over federal lands are a direct threat to our rivers

The upper Salmon River canyon near Stanley is completely surrounded by federal land. The Idaho Legislature has been entertaining methods to take over federal land in the state, and there’s little doubt that our rivers and fish would suffer. (Photo by Greg Stahl)

By Greg Stahl, Communications Manager

Idaho’s abundant healthy rivers are a direct result of the state’s wealth of publicly-owned land. With the headwaters of every major river system in the state originating on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, any threat to public land in Idaho is a direct threat to the Gem State’s clean water, wild fish and thousands of miles of rivers that attract floaters and anglers from around the planet.

Unfortunately the Idaho Legislature continues to press the issue of a state takeover of the 32.5 million acres of federal land in the state. Deliberating this tired old idea is a waste of taxpayer money. And while the prospect of a state takeover is a threat to the sanctity of some of America’s most precious wild places and rivers, the truth is that such a move would be impossible without an act of Congress, and illegal according to Idaho’s own constitution and laws.

Proponents at the Idaho statehouse have invented arguments to make their case that federal land belongs to the state and that Idaho would do a better job managing them while experiencing an economic windfall from doing so.

To cut to the chase, all of this is a fairly ungrounded fantasy and should concern Idahoans whose elected officials are wasting time and money contemplating such a measure. If there’s a chief concern associated with this discussion it’s that our lawmakers, first, are willing to entertain the notion of taking over federal land held in trust for all Americans and, second, that they’re willing to waste taxpayer dollars doing so.

In an opinion penned in April 2014, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden pointed out numerous legal flaws in the case Idaho lawmakers have been trying to make.

“…The Idaho Territory was created by act of Congress on March 4, 1863, and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The Idaho Territory was created from lands that had previously been organized as both the Oregon Territory and the Washington Territory,” Wasden wrote. “In other words, the federal government held the lands a long time before Idaho became a state on July 4, 1890. It is quite difficult to ‘take back’ lands that we, as a state, have never owned.”

Wasden further pointed out that the proposal fails to satisfy the Idaho Constitution, Idaho Admission Bill and Senate Joint Memorial Number 6, passed by the Legislature in 1947.

The Idaho Constitution, in particular, doesn’t mince words: “…The 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, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indians or Indian tribes; and until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States…”

The concept of state control of our public lands is not a new idea. In fact, it’s periodically bubbled to the surface for decades. There is evidence, however, that this recent effort has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank whose board is peppered with representatives from some of the nation’s largest corporations, which would gain from loosened environmental regulations. In the past several years, similar proposals have surfaced in a number of western states—all likely having ties to the Exchange Council.

There is also little evidence that Idaho, if successful in wresting control, could afford to pay for their administration. A 2014 University of Idaho study concluded that Idaho could find itself $111 million in the hole per year if saddled with the cost of managing federal land. This leads many to fear that the only resulting solution would be for the sale of those lands into private hands.

While the prospect of states wresting control of publicly-owned land from the federal government may seem distant, if not impossible, we must remain vigilant. The people advancing these ideas, however far fetched they may seem, only need to win once.