BOISE • A raucous crowd and dubious Democrats at the Statehouse on Monday confronted two Utah lawmakers spearheading efforts to seize control of federal lands.
The Utahns faced a grilling by Idaho Democrats on the House and Senate Resource committees, which met jointly to hear their presentation. Behind them was a packed auditorium of people mostly opposed to a land transfer — many wearing stickers saying “Keep Your Hands Off My Public Lands” — who sometimes scoffed or laughed loudly.
Several times, House Resources and Conservation Chairman Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, brought down his gavel to try to rein them in.
Utah’s Rep. Kevin Stratton and Sen. David Hinkins, the co-chairmen of the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, argued that state control would allow the states to make more money from expanding oil and gas drilling and logging, helping to revive the economies of the rural West.
“We need to get more people on the land and more jobs out there but we’re so bound (because of) the BLM and the Forest Service,” Hinkins said.
They were adamant that they would oppose the sale of public lands, a frequently cited fear of transfer opponents. Stratton said this would be like a successful dairyman selling his cows — does it make any sense to sell them, he asked, when you can continue to milk them?
“Let me be clear,” he said. “We are not talking about the sale of private lands to the public sector. We are talking about the preservation of what we value.”
Control of federal lands has been an issue in statehouses throughout the West, including Idaho, but Utah has gone further than most. The commission Stratton and Hinkins co-chair says it is unconstitutional for the feds to own so much land and has recommended the state sue the federal government for control. About two-thirds of the land in Utah, and 60 percent in Idaho, is owned by the federal government.
George Wentz, the lawyer who is leading Utah’s effort, said federal ownership of so much Western land violates the principle that the states are all equal to each other.
“Is Idaho weaker than New York because Idaho doesn’t have dominion over all its land?” Wentz said. “Actually, it is.”
Wentz said Western lawmakers in Washington, D.C., can be blackmailed with payments in lieu of taxes their states depend on, and that keeping so much land locked up limits development, keeping the population lower and limiting the Western states’ power in D.C.
“With all due respect, I wouldn’t want Idaho to look like our Eastern states,” said Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, prompting a round of applause from the crowd and a gaveling from Raybould.
A committee of Idaho lawmakers studied lands issues and made its recommendations in January 2015. Some became law last year, although others, such as a proposal to form an interstate compact with Utah and other states to work on getting state control, didn’t pass. This year, the only major piece of legislation in that vein in Idaho is a proposal, modeled on one already enacted in Utah, to allow counties to declare a “catastrophic public nuisance” in cases where county officials believe the maintenance of federal lands poses an increased risk of wildfires or other safety concerns.
Some lawyers, including Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, have expressed doubts about the legal theory behind a constitutional challenge to federal land ownership.
Stennett was particularly vocal about her doubts. She asked how much they would be willing to spend to gain state control of the lands, noting that it has been estimated it could cost Utah $14 million to sue.
“My question to you would be, What is the price of liberty?” Stratton said.
“Everybody has different definitions of that,” Stennett replied.
As for the cost of maintaining federal lands, a point frequently brought up by transfer skeptics, Hinkins said the federal government should still be responsible for firefighting costs until the states can switch to maintaining the lands the way they want.
“We believe there would be significant reduction in the risk of wildfires if our lands were properly managed and taken care of,” Stratton said.
Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said that while he and many Idaho lawmakers sympathize with Stratton and Hinkins’ aims, many of the voters he has heard from are against a land transfer. As the crowd shouted him down and said they don’t trust their state lawmakers, Bateman said advocates of state control need to do a better job of making their case.
“Don’t you trust the people you elect or do you just want to trust the Washington bureaucrats?” Bateman asked.