Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill authorizing the state government to seize federally-managed lands through eminent domain. Utah legislators, frustrated with what they feel to be mismanagement of public lands, approved legislation on the belief that the state could care for the lands in a much better manner than the feds.
A state lawmaker in Idaho, Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, is eying what’s happening in Utah and may look to pass a similar bill in Idaho in 2011.
According to Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo’s website, 63 percent of Idaho’s land is owned and managed by the federal government in one form or another. Private entities – citizens and business interests – control 30.7 percent of lands in the state, while the Idaho state government owns 5.1 percent.
Utah lawmakers want to take advantage of natural resources on the lands and generate more tax revenue for the state. Anderson said that the same goal will be found in his legislation, which will be a near-copy of the Utah bill. “Why are proceeds from those lands going back to Washington, D.C.?” asked Anderson, who added that timber and geothermal resources are available on federal lands and possibly even natural gas. “There have been some natural gas pockets discovered and who knows how much is out there on federal lands,” he said.
Some critics of Utah efforts have called the bill frivolous and only a display of political grandstanding. Bob Keiter, a public lands expert at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said the federal government is allowed to manage its public lands as it sees fits through power granted by the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution. ”Every court that’s considered whether to override the federal prerogative on federal lands has sided with the federal government,” Keiter told the New York Times. “The state doesn’t have much to stand on legally.”
Anderson rejects Keiter’s argument and says the issue needs to be brought up in Idaho. “That’s open for discussion, but I don’t see it that way,” Anderson explained. “The state has to protect its own.”
Though the feds control and manage the lands, the state and school districts do benefit somewhat financially. The federal government sends payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) funds to school districts in each of Idaho’s 44 counties in varying amount. In counties where federal ownership of lands is a high percentage of total land in the area, districts receive large amounts.
For example, in 2005, Elmore, Cassia, and Blaine counties received more than $1 million from the PILT program, but Anderson worries that those funds aren’t guaranteed. “PILT funds are nothing more than a Band-Aid and we are always at risk of losing those funds,” said Anderson. “There is no benefit to the schools. Imagine if we got those federal lands and took them and put them in another endowment for schools. It would take the burden off individual taxpayers.”
Indeed, in past years, disbursement of PILT funds has become politically-charged and delivery of federal dollars is sometimes disrupted. Earlier this year, Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar calling on his department to release the money on time to school districts around the country after unexplained delays. “Many of our rural counties lose so much of their tax base to federal land ownership, and the timely release of PILT payments is imperative to ensure that counties recoup lost tax dollars and can fund critical road maintenance projects and schools,” wrote Crapo on July 25, 2010.
If Anderson is successful in getting the bill through the Idaho Legislature in 2011, the state will need to be ready to pay up for legal fees. It has been projected the Utah bill could cost as much as $3 million to defend in court, though lawmakers in that state feel it’s worth the cost if the lands are added to state ownership and the revenue base in enlarged.
Anderson’s work on the bill will continue as he prepares for the legislative session, slated to begin Jan. 11, 2011. He said he is likely to team with other lawmakers in the House to present one bill, though he did not specify who might participate in the effort.
Note: Map used in this post came from NationalAtlas.gov.