With nearly two-thirds of all Idaho land controlled by the federal government, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador says it’s time his home state and others control some of the property.
On Thursday, Labrador made his case to a House subcommittee, urging his colleagues to approve a plan that would allow pilot projects that would allow state and local officials to manage up to 2 percent of the 193 million acres of federally owned forest land across the country.
“Let’s give control to the people who are closest to the land and know it best,” said Labrador, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The hearing came one day after 10 defendants pleaded not guilty in a federal court in Oregon to conspiracy charges stemming from the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The takeover, which lasted 41 days, drew attention to the simmering tensions that surround federal control of vast amounts of land, though Labrador has championed the cause for years. Sixteen people face federal charges in the case.
Labrador said his plan would let governor-appointed advisory committees decide how to use the land, which could include timber harvesting and recreational use, helping the local economy. He said the “mismanagement” of national forests has cost both jobs and environmental damage and that his plan would give state officials “a chance to show that they can manage the land.”
The issue of how to best manage the federal government’s vast holdings of 640 million acres of land is becoming a hot one on the 2016 campaign trail.
Seeking to win votes in the Nevada GOP presidential caucus this week, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz proposed giving the state of Nevada control of all of its federal land.
And a Republican candidate for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat made news last week by suggesting that the federal government relinquish control of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to the state of Wyoming.
Opponents, including Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, say it would be a mistake for the federal government to relinquish control of its properties.
Republicans on the House subcommittee on federal lands representing states with high concentrations of forest land such as Oregon and Alaska were quick to endorse Labrador’s bill, called the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act.
“The federal government has failed” in terms of managing the forests, said Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska. “The forest that isn’t being cut is dying.”
And GOP Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon said that without timber harvesting in his state, trees were overcrowded and disease-ridden, while rural towns faced hard times as a result of mill closings.
Gordon Cruickshank, commisisoner chairman of Valley County, Idaho, testified on behalf of the bill, saying it marked a step in the right direction. With less timber harvesting and overall forest management, he said, catastrophic wildfires are more prevalent, destroying grazing acres and homes.
“Is ‘catastrophic’ the new normal for wildfires?” Cruickshank said. “My constituents and I refuse to accept that.”
Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts argued against the bill, saying the existence of national public lands such as parks and forests “is a value that dates back to the founding of our country and is embedded in our Constitution.” She said Labrador’s plan betrays “this generational commitment to our nation’s public lands and their multi-use mandate.”
Conservation groups also condemned the proposal.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said the bill “ panders to private interests at the expense of the public benefit.”
And the Wilderness Society said in a statement that the bill would “rob Americans of their freedom,” allowing states to use land as they see fit, exempt from all national environmental laws.
The idea of giving states more control over federal land is quickly gaining traction in many western states, where the federal government owns roughly half the land and critics have long complained that too much property is off-limits for economic uses.
Among the states, Nevada ranks first, with the federal government owning and controlling 85 percent of the land. Utah is second, at 65 percent, followed by Idaho, at 62 percent, according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service.
In California, where 46 percent of the land is federally-owned, many Republicans complained earlier this month when President Barack Obama designated three new national monuments in the state. Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called it “presidential bullying” and said the president was out to “commandeer land.”
In Washington state, 29 percent of all land is under federal control, but the rate is much higher in many individual counties. In Skamania County, where 80 percent of the land is federally owned, the county board in 2013 appealed for help from Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, blaming the county’s poor finances on its inability to use any of the federal land.
In 2013, the U.S. House passed a similar bill, but it went nowhere in the Senate, which was then controlled by the Democrats.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover helped drive the issue back into public awareness. The occupation was led by Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven, had been the central figure in a 2014 standoff over grazing rights with federal officials in Nevada.
Ammon Bundy and other organizers were arrested Jan. 26 after a shootout that left the group’s spokesman dead, but the Malheur occupation continued until Feb. 11.
Labrador said Thursday that the bill should have a better chance of getting final approval this year with Republicans now in control of both houses of Congress.