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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...