GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's call to sell or transfer federally owned public lands Tuesday night in Boise earned him several rounds of applause.
But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter found in 2005 that while Idahoans don’t like how federal lands are managed, they don’t want to lose access to the places they hunt, fish and camp.
President Herbert Hoover and former Interior Secretary James Watt learned similar lessons in their times.
But Santorum’s detailed proposal on an issue close to the heart of Westerners may help set him apart from Republican Mitt Romney in the March 6 Republican caucus, which is expected to attract the most devoted party members.
“We need to get it back into the hands of the states and even to the private sector,” Santorum told an overflow crowd at Boise’s Capital High School. “And we can make money doing it.”
Santorum said national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon should remain under federal management. But based on the poor management he has seen in the federal lands in his home state of Pennsylvania, he said he believes Westerners could do better.
“We do not need this huge amount of federal land under federal purview and I would be happy to work with your senators and congressmen out here in the West to put a plan together that’s going to have a much more responsible management of land in the West than we’ve had in the last many years, OK?”
OTHER CANDIDATES BROACH TRANSFERS
Santorum isn’t the only Republican in the race urging the federal government to transfer public land.
Rep. Ron Paul has called for eliminating the Department of Interior, which manages more than 500 million acres of public land and a big chunk of Idaho, almost two-thirds of which is owned by the federal government.
“I’d rather see the land owned and controlled by the states,” Paul told a crowd in Elko, Nev., earlier this month.
Romney’s campaign did not respond to an Idaho Statesman request for details about the candidate’s federal lands policy Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Romney told the Reno-Gazette Journal that he didn’t know why the federal government owned all the land and that he hadn’t studied the transfer issue.
“But where government ownership of land is designed to satisfy, let’s say, the most extreme environmentalists, from keeping a population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that to be unacceptable,” Romney said.
Of the four Republicans in Idaho’s congressional delegation, only Rep. Raul Labrador has expressed support for transferring public land to the state, which he did during his 2010 congressional campaign. Press secretary Ellen Carmichael said Wednesday that Labrador had no comment on Santorum’s proposal.
None of the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation responded, either, by deadline Wednesday. Otter wasn’t available for comment.
But in 2005, when he was Idaho’s 1st District congressman, Otter co-sponsored a bill that would have required the Forest Service to sell15 percent of its land to help pay for the cost of helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.
After his 2006 Democratic opponent, Jerry Brady, made it an issue in the gubernatorial campaign, Otter acknowledged he made a mistake and reversed his position.
“As an avid sportsman, a Grand Slam member of Ducks Unlimited and a life member of the Safari Club International, I understand the importance of public land both to our wildlife and to the hunting and fishing public,” Otter wrote in a newspaper guest opinion in 2006.
But among Republicans, it’s been a divisive issue.
In the same year Otter backed off, the Idaho Senate voted to ask Congress not to sell significant portions of public land. But the Idaho House of Representatives did vote to ask Congress to transfer management of the national forests in Idaho to the state to pay for rural schools and roads.
The federal government owns 33.7 million acres in Idaho, almost 64 percent of the state’s land. Of that, 20.5 million acres are national forests and 11.9 million acres are owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
About 677,000 acres — 2.3 percent — of Santorum’s Pennsylvania is federal land, including national parks and the Allegheny National Forest.
A HISTORY OF CONTROVERSY
Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, proposed selling 35 million acres of public land in 1983 to help pay off the national debt. The proposal kicked off a storm of protest that forced him to back down.
“He became the biggest fund-raising tool the Sierra Club ever had,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, who said Watt’s proposal was one reason he went into environmental work.
President Hoover proposed transferring to the states 190 million acres of public land that remained unsold in 1929. But he offered the land without the minerals beneath, which Westerners derided as “skimmed milk,” or “the lid without the bucket.”
The states rejected the transfer, said John Freemuth, a professor of political science at Boise State University.
Santorum said Tuesday the nation could not afford to manage its federal estate.
“The federal government doesn’t care about it, they don’t care about this land,” he said. “They don’t live here, they don’t care about it, we don’t care about it in Washington. It’s just flyover country for most of the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”
But John Reuter, a Republican who just took over as director of the Conservation Voters for Idaho, said he opposes Santorum’s proposal.
Public lands, said Reuter, are “core to Idaho’s quality of life and its economy.”
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