Idaho Wildfires Highlight Federal Land Management Woes

Published April 3, 2013

The Idaho legislature passed a resolution calling on the federal government to properly manage federal lands in the state that have been ravaged by wildfires. The lack of federal efforts to restore trails and recreational areas in lands destroyed by wildfire highlight problems with the federal government owning most of the land in western states.

Trails in Disrepair
The Idaho House and Senate each approved a resolution urging the U.S. Forest Service to declare the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area’s trail system a natural disaster area. After wildfires struck the Wilderness Area over several years, the federal government has done little to restore the trails that are supposed to provide recreational access.

Part of Broader Problem
Free-market environmentalists say the Idaho bill highlights a broader problem: The federal government is scarcely equipped to manage its lands properly. The best solution, according to land-rights advocates, is to return the land to the states and to the people.
In Idaho, where more than 65 percent of the land is owned by federal authorities, years of wildfires have devastated the trail system on several nationally owned parks and sites. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area is in particularly poor shape. Many of the trails running through the 2.3 million acre wilderness area have degraded past the point of recreational use. Many trails have eroded away, while others are blocked by multitudes of fallen trees and other obstacles. 
Federal ownership of so much land is a key reason the properties are falling into disrepair, the American Land Rights Association’s Washington, DC, representative, Mike Hardiman, said.
The federal government does not have the resources on the ground in western states to properly manage so much land, Hardiman said.

“The Forest Service has a forest fire budget,” said Hardiman. “But frequently, the budget for containing forest fires is exhausted before the fiscal year’s end.”
States Deprived of Tax Base
That leaves states to pay, but federal ownership of so much land leaves a very small tax base. In Idaho, the problem of paying for government land maintenance is especially difficult. Tax revenues are tough to come by when the federal government, rather than the private sector, owns most of the property.
“Fire is a perfect example. When we have an extreme fire season, the feds don’t have enough money to adequately address the fires,” said ALRA founder and executive director Chuck Cushman.

“That puts states in a difficult position,” Cushman said, “because they can’t tax those lands, but they have to protect their communities and their residents. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
In the end, he said, the federal government is just a poor partner in land maintenance.
“The federal government has to be a better neighbor,” Cushman said. “Often, the federal government is more an obstacle to solving the problem.”
Cheryl Chumley ([email protected]) is a news writer with The Washington Times.