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Opening Salvos in Public-Lands Transfer Fight

Ownership and management of public lands is sure to be a topic as the Idaho Legislature begins its 2017 session next week. (Colleen Bonelli/Flickr)
Ownership and management of public lands is sure to be a topic as the Idaho Legislature begins its 2017 session next week. (Colleen Bonelli/Flickr)
January 6, 2017

BOISE, Idaho - The debate over transfer of public lands to the states is heating up - both in Washington, D.C., and Idaho - as lawmakers head back to both capitols.

The U.S. House of Representatives this week approved a rule-change package that includes a change in how public-land transfers are accounted for. Under the change, the House would not account for any impact that land transfers to states would have on the budget.

Both Idaho congressmen voted in favor of the change, but Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, said the rule makes it easier to sell off lands and lacks consideration for the value of public lands.

"If the federal government were to relinquish trillions of dollars of assets, there's a direct cost there to the American taxpayer and the American people," he said, "but also, more importantly, I think, the impacts on Americans who treasure their access to public lands and don't want to see our public lands privatized and auctioned off to the highest bidder."

Under the former rule, the House would have subtracted money brought in by public lands from the government's revenue in the event of a transfer.

In the past, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has opposed land transfer to the states. President-elect Donald Trump's pick for U.S. Interior secretary, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., also voted in favor of the rule change but said he still opposes land transfer.

The Idaho Legislature convenes on Monday. State Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, told the Argus-Observer, a newspaper based in Ontario, Ore., that she plans to introduce multiple public-lands bills for the second straight year. Two of them will deal with how the state would manage land if it were transferred, and which transferred lands, if any, could be sold off.

The Idaho Conservation League, along with sportsmen and other groups, oppose this effort. Oppenheimer said public lands are being used as political chess pieces.

"Idaho politicians are making a grab to control and sell off some of Idaho's most treasured landscapes," he said. "These are our lands, and we shouldn't allow our public lands to be a whipping boy for a politician."

Trump has said he opposes the transfer of public lands to the states, but Oppenheimer said there are more questions than answers for public-lands users in the next administration.

The Argus-Observer article is online at

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID