The land transfer movement’s great public-lands hoax

Idaho has sold off 40 percent of its state lands. Why would it do any different with formerly federal lands?

 

The disturbing thing about scams is that all too often they work.  Some are easy to spot, like the foreign cousin you didn’t know you had who calls and needs cash wired immediately.  Here in Idaho, the scam of the moment involves politicians trying hard to convince us that states should take control of public lands now managed by the federal government.

Like good used car salesmen, the legislators hawking this free-the-public-lands scam want you to believe that the deal is too good to walk away from.  But a look under the hood reveals that the salesmen aren’t telling the whole story.

Recently, as a start at getting at the truth, The Wilderness Society conducted an analysis of how Idaho treats the lands it already manages.  What the nonprofit organization found makes it hard to believe that Idaho politicians wouldn’t move quickly to sell off and close access to our public lands. Of the lands granted to Idaho when it became a state, Idaho has sold off 1.7 million acres –– just over 40 percent –– of the original amount. The primary buyers have been mining and timber companies. Other state lands sold off have since been developed into strip malls, country clubs and private fishing clubs. 

Still, state legislators act perplexed when some residents say they fear what would happen if federally managed public lands were given to states like Idaho. In a hearing this spring, Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, tried to explain why the distrust exists: " Most of the feedback I get is in opposition. … They (the public) don't trust the people they elect; they're more inclined to trust federal bureaucrats."

James Holt, a Nez Perce tribal member and former chairman of the Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, warned, “Once these public lands end up in the hands of corporations and private individuals, the freedom to use and enjoy them is almost impossible to get back.”

Here’s more recent troubling news: Between 2000 and 2009, Idaho sold 98,000 acres of its state-managed land. Why, then, would anyone expect state officials to do anything different if they gained control of federal lands? According to Idaho sportsmen like Jerry Bullock, who is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association as well as a Safari Club International member, “The loss of access for sportsmen in Idaho would be staggering if the state were to get its hands on our Forest Service and BLM lands.”

Idaho isn’t the only state with a strong history of liquidating its land.  New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Wyoming all share a history of selling off their lands.  In total, Western states have disposed of over 31 million acres of land, an area roughly equivalent to the state of Louisiana.  

Proponents of the anti-public lands movement claim that our system is broken and deprives states of income. They say the way to fix it is to take Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands away from all of us and give these lands to the states, undermining the conservation idea that Theodore Roosevelt made popular more than 100 years ago.  Roosevelt’s creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 was criticized by the land barons at the time, but it’s the reason we have free access to hunt, hike, fish, bike, climb and camp on millions of acres of national forests today.

President Roosevelt knew much of the West needed federal protection: “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

According to those who would hand over our federal lands to the states, our birthright of public lands is a giant error, not a rare privilege. Apparently, these critics would rather see us forced to beg private landowners for permission to hunt or hike, rather than be allowed to enjoy the freedom to go where we want to go, on the lands that all of us own.

Luckily, most Idahoans can smell a scam a mile away. The promises that politicians make about holding on to public lands are empty. In Idaho, they just don’t square with a 100-year history of privatizing Idaho’s treasured forests, high desert valleys and fishing streams.  

Brad Brooks is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. A lifelong hunter and climber, he is the deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society’s Boise office.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...