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House panel agrees to study public land transfer

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — State lawmakers officially began their efforts Tuesday to wrest control from the federal government millions of acres of public forest, backcountry and rangelands across the state.

The House State Affairs Committee voted along party lines in support of a resolution that demands the federal government transfer ownership of about 35 million acres now overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

Republican proponents insist the state can do a better job as stewards of the land, reducing the size and damage caused by summer wildfires and earn significantly more revenue from those lands with oversight of industries looking to cut timber, mine or graze Idaho's vast inventory of public acreage.

Rep. Lawerence Denney, the plan's chief sponsor, said the time has come for Idaho to assume a bigger role as landlord, even if it brings increased costs and administrative responsibility.

"When the question is asked 'how can we afford to take over management,' I think the question is how can we afford not to?" said Denney, R-Midvale.

The committee also signed off on a separate resolution that calls for appointing a panel of lawmakers to spend the summer months studying all aspects, costs and potential benefits and pitfalls of a future handover of federal lands. Both measures are headed to the House for more debate.

Idaho's model for ownership change mirrors legislation adopted in Utah a year ago that demanded that the federal government surrender control over 20 million acres of federal land in that state by 2014. Should the government ignore the deadline, Utah lawmakers spearheading the issue say they are poised to make their case in court that federal officials long ago reneged on a constitutional pledge to relinquish control of federal landholdings in each state.

A similar bill that emerged in Arizona last year was shelved after a House committee deemed it unconstitutional. It was later revised then vetoed by Gov. Jan. Brewer.

Like the Utah bill, the version passed out of committee Tuesday requires Idaho to give back lands now deemed part of the National Parks, protected wilderness areas, national monuments, tribal reservations or Department of Defense or Department of Energy holdings.

The state is not proposing to give back the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area or the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Nor is it proposing to transfer back to the feds the roadless national forest lands, wilderness study areas, the Boise Foothills or the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey along the Snake River in the state's southwest corner.

The state would also have the authority to sell off part of any new landholdings, with 5 percent of the proceeds going to a fund to support public schools and the remaining sum sent back to the federal government to pay down the national debt, according to the resolution.

Denney cautioned the intention is not to privatize huge tracts of land now available to anyone, from any state. The Idaho Constitution, he said, limits transactions to any one person to 320 acres.

"This is not a land grab just to sell to the highest bidder," he said.

The measure also won favor Tuesday from the Idaho Farm Bureau. However, it drew criticism from environmentalists who argued that the potential for Idaho officials to one day auction off public parcels imperils one of the state's most cherished characteristics — unfettered access to huge tracts of wild forests, rivers and trails.

Detractors urged the committee to consider the potential costs tied to fighting wildfires in a state where federal officials spent nearly $200 million last year battling blazes across more than 1.7 million acres of forests and rangeland.

Jon Robison, the Idaho Conservation League's public lands director, cautioned that while federal bureaucracy and decision-making can be slow, irritating and inefficient, the system of regulations and laws protecting access, species, water and habitat is more protective than anything the state has to offer.

"We understand public lands can be managed better than they are," Robison told the committee. "Idahoans simply don't want to see 'No Trespassing' signs blocking access to their family campsites, fishing holes, hunting camps or hiking trails. These lands contribute immeasurably to our economy and our outdoor way of life."

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