BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho may be the next Western state to pick a public lands fight with the federal government for control of millions of acres of forest, rangeland and mineral deposits within its borders.
Idaho lawmakers, motivated by the potential for new revenue and the appeal of having more authority over how those lands are managed, are gearing up to follow the lead taken by Utah and Arizona in 2012.
Last year, Utah and Arizona approved measures demanding the federal government surrender control of millions of acres of land overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Utah's bill became law when it was signed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, while Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill.
"This is about economic self-reliance," Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory told a joint meeting Monday of the House Resources and Conservation Committee and Senate Resources and Environment Committee.
Ivory, a lawyer and Republican from suburban Salt Lake City, led the charge for the bill in Utah, making the case that language in statehood documents dating back to the 1800s contain a constitutional provision that the federal government intended to relinquish control of the land it held in each state. But for some states, especially those in the West, the federal government reneged, Ivory says.
He challenged Idaho lawmakers to compare fates with North Dakota. Both became states nine months apart and, Ivory claims, did so under identical statehood language. Yet, federally managed land in North Dakota accounts for less than 5 percent of the state's overall acreage.
"The federal government has not been disposing of those federal lands as it promised to do," he said.
The Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act pushes the issue, setting a 2014 deadline for the federal government to hand over more than 20 million acres scattered across the state. The law exempts national parks and monuments, tribal reservations, military installations and congressionally approved wilderness areas and calls for using revenue gleaned from state-sanctioned land sales and royalties from logging and mining to be used for schools and repaying the federal deficit.
If the federal government ignores the deadline, Utah is prepared to press its case in the courts, Ivory said, despite warnings from legislative attorneys the law can pass constitutional muster based on historic Supreme Court precedent set on public lands cases. An early version in Arizona was scrapped after being deemed unconstitutional.
House Resources and Conservation Committee Chairman Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said he's circulating drafts of a bill modeled after the Utah legislation and should have a version ready in weeks to present to his committee. Denney has not yet asked for an attorney general opinion on the draft proposal.
House Speaker Scott Bedke is embracing a public debate and expects the idea will be embraced by many in his Republican-dominated chamber.
"It's a big idea that seems to resonate with the committee, at least if I'm correctly reading the body language," Bedke said after Ivory's presentation.
In Idaho, more than 64 percent of the state's 53 million acres is under federal control, and for years political leaders have pursued ways to minimize or eliminate the federal government's decision-making authority on those lands.
For example, in Idaho's gubernatorial race in 2006, then-U.S. Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter withdrew his support of federal legislation that proposed to sell off millions of acres of federal land in the West to help raise money to offset costs of Hurricane Katrina.
Otter backed off — and even acknowledged he was wrong — after getting bruised by his political challengers and voters irritated by the possibility of losing some of Idaho's prized backcountry.
Bedke and Denney also acknowledge some challenges. For example, the federal government spent more than $230 million fighting fires that burned across Idaho forests and rangelands last year.
Conservation groups are bracing for a fight.
"Idaho's national forests and public lands are priceless to the people of Idaho and Americans as a whole," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, an activist with the Idaho Conservation League. "The lands contribute to our economy and way of life, and every few years some fringe elements have trotted out a tired argument that Idaho should take over these lands.
"We feel that this latest push would put some of Idaho's most special places at risk and could end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.