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Delegation members feel rural Idaho's pain, but . . .

Marty Trillhaase
March 28, 2013
Lewiston Tribune

For nearly three months, challenging the federal government to relinquish its holdings in Idaho has been among the Legislature's premier debates.

Finally, somebody asked Idaho's congressional delegation's opinion. Read between the lines of what the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barker reported Tuesday, and here's what you hear: We feel your pain, but . . .

Wrangling state management - but not ownership - might be more feasible, say Sen. Mike Crapo and Congressman Raul Labrador, both R-Idaho.

Working within the system might may reduce federal red tape and litigation, says Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

No comment, says Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who in his brief turn as Idaho governor steered an Idaho roadless forest management plan toward fruition.

That hasn't deterred Idaho House members, who plowed right ahead with a measure aimed at suing the federal government into submission and forming a study panel to explore the issue. Its fate in the Senate is uncertain, however.

If this were such a great idea, don't you think one if not all of Idaho's members of Congress would pursue it? What do they know that state lawmakers do not?

History - Since the Sagebrush Rebellion first surfaced, Idaho and the Western states have elected several powerful Republican members of Congress: Idaho's Jim McClure and Larry Craig, Utah's Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, Wyoming's Craig Thomas and Washington's Slade Gorton.

None of them ever produced a transfer of federal lands to the states. At most, they talked about pilot programs or state management of national property.

Politics - If there was ever a time a federal land transfer was possible, it came during President George W. Bush's first six years in office, when his Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress. But such a bill would be wildly unpopular nationally. Republicans elected east of the Mississippi would be skeptical about any diminution of national environmental laws accompanying a land transfer.

The law - Nobody, not the platoon of lawyers embedded in the personal and committee staffs of Western members of Congress, not congressional scholars, not former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Mark Rey and certainly nobody working at the Department of Justice or the White House has found a way to compel the federal government to relinquish its property to the states.

Yet Ken Ivory, an obscure Utah state representative, says he has the legal equivalent to a magic bullet. That's analogous to former state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden, becoming the first American in a century to find a legal reprieve from paying federal income taxes.

Public opinion - Since Jimmy Carter's day, Idahoans have toyed with the idea of acquiring federal land, only to be sobered by where it leads. Without the means to manage the holdings, including firefighting costs, Idaho would be compelled to auction the properties to the highest bidder. Even the idea of selling off some public lands to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief was so unpopular that then-Idaho Congressman C.L. (Butch) Otter backtracked and apologized.

So for three months, lawmakers played to their base, offering the beleaguered rural Idaho economy a bit of drama and a false hope. But the escape route from Idaho's public lands gridlock involves the hard work of collaboration, not political hijinks.

Outside a few darkened corners of Idaho's Capitol, this is not news.

Originally posted at

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