Idaho Considers Bill Demanding Return of Federal Lands

Published April 10, 2013

A group of Idaho lawmakers is considering legislation demanding the federal government turn over millions of acres of land to the state government in Boise.

Idaho legislators say they are increasingly frustrated over being denied access to federal lands within their state’s borders. Legislators in Arizona and Utah passed similar legislation demanding less federal intrusion in their state. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed the Utah legislation into law last year, while Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed her state’s legislation last year. 

Feds Broke Ownership Promise
Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) told a joint meeting of the Idaho House Resources and Conservation Committee and the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, “This is about economic self-reliance.” Ivory, who spearheaded the Utah legislation, reminded the Idaho legislators that language from statehood documents dating from the 19th century contained a provision that the federal government intended to relinquish control of the land it controlled in each state.  While the feds abided by the provision in Great Plains states such as North Dakota, Washington held on to the most of the land in the West. 

“The federal government has not been disposing of the lands as it promised to do,” said Ivory.

Following Utah’s Lead
If Idaho lawmakers decide to follow Ivory’s recommendation, the resulting bill would likely resemble Utah’s “Transfer of Public Lands Act.” The Utah Act calls on the federal government to convey about 20 million acres of land (over 31,000 square miles) to Utah. The Utah Act set a deadline of 2014 for the federal government to turn over the land to the state. 

With little expectation that the federal government will comply with the Utah law, federal courts would likely decide the issue.

States Suffer under Federal Control
The federal government, primarily through the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, owns about 64 percent of the land in Idaho. With so much land off the property-tax rolls, state and local governments are having a difficult time funding such things as schools, roads, and essential water projects. The large federal estate has also kept Idaho from realizing the potential of its substantial mineral and timber resources. 

“Federal control of lands in Idaho is a direct impediment to our state’s ability to put our natural resources to productive use,” Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, told Environment & Climate News. “This results in less economic vitality for our communities, less money for our industries, less money for education and less opportunity for our young people.” 

“Additionally, we get to watch national land mismanagement cause the destruction of millions of acres of public forest land each year,” Hoffman explained. “We can’t keep allowing the federal government to do the same thing year after year and expect a different result. That’s why we favor the plan to put Idaho in charge of public lands in the state.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.