Concurrent resolutions from the Idaho Legislature don’t mean much. But one that failed in the House recently sends smoke signals that we should be watching. The innocuous resolution was to recognize the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s 50th Anniversary. The creation of the NRA was a compromise with ranchers, outdoor recreationists, and environmentalists. The original proposal was to make the area a national park.
But the existence of this imperfect compromise that protects some of Idaho’s most beautiful public lands still galls some lawmakers. In the debate over the resolution, there was some discussion about how the area should be state land. The tired argument that Idaho’s federal lands should belong to the state ignores the conditions under which Idaho became a state. Under the Constitution, through the Property Clause contained in Article IV, Congress has the “power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” In accepting Statehood Idaho Territory was required to give up all claims to any Federal lands within the boundaries of their new state.
But that’s where the smoke is coming from. Many Legislators dream of a state takeover of federal lands, not because they think the state could do a better job of managing them—though that is often the cover story—but because they see state ownership as the first step to privatizing public lands.
A few years ago, a legislative interim committee traveled the state trying to gin up support for bringing federal lands under state ownership. They were shocked. Shocked! To discover how much Idahoans valued their public lands and the lack of enthusiasm for a state takeover. This may be the biggest disconnect between elected officials in Idaho and the people they represent. Support for public lands in the Gem State is both deep and broad. This is an issue where party matters little. Idahoans, regardless of their affiliation, cherish the public lands where they hunt and fish. They value the opportunities those lands offer for hiking, biking, and motorized recreation. They think of camping as a right passed down through generations.
The failure of the resolution celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area won’t make a difference at all in the long run. But Idahoans need to be vigilant about that political smoke. It is more dangerous than a forest fire.
Rick Just has been an advocate for public lands during a 30-year career with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, as a Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council Member, and past president of the national Society for Outdoor Recreation Professionals.