Our state legislators are wasting our taxpayer money evaluating this Tea Party-driven idea that has been repeatedly shown by legal scholars to be unconstitutional. If the far right-wing of our state Legislature continues to go down this path, they will waste more taxpayer money on lawsuits arising from this bald-faced land grab. Ultimately, if the state actually tried to manage U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands in Idaho, they would zap our state budget, and the state would be forced to sell off federal lands to private industry, cutting off vital public access to our federal lands. In the end, recreation businesses, including those driving the sale of firearms and motorized vehicles, would be harmed for no good reason.
Our federal lands in Idaho include 20 million acres of national forest land, from the top of the Boise Foothills to the Canadian border. The BLM manages 12.5 million acres in southern Idaho north and south of the Snake River. In terms of sheer numbers, recreation activities are far and away the predominant use on our federal lands, including camping, scenic drives, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, motorcycle and ATV riding, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing. These activities generate more than 77,000 jobs, $6.3 billion in consumer spending, $1.8 billion in wages, and $461 million in state and local tax revenue on an annual basis, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
Idahoans love their public lands; they use them frequently, and they spend money on the latest toys to enjoy these areas in many ways. From my perspective, this trend is growing every year.
So why would legislators want to take away our federal lands and ruin a situation that’s not broken? Politicians like to beat up on the federal government on one hand, and then, with the other hand, they want to get all of the money and resources provided by the feds – giving the appearance of a state-supported, balanced budget.
A lot of people don’t realize that the Idaho Department of Lands, the agency that lawmakers want to manage our federal lands, doesn’t even have a recreation program! Not one dollar goes toward recreation. Not one recreation staff person exists. So how could IDL all of a sudden gear up to manage millions of acres of recreation resources on federal lands? They couldn’t without a substantial tax increase or a huge increase in user-pay recreation fees.
Just think if there were a bunch of wildfires in one summer, like we’ve had almost every year lately, and suddenly the state had to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for fire suppression. This scenario would cripple the state budget. It would have to sell off the lands – which is probably lawmakers’ real agenda – and we’d all suffer. We’d lose access to our beloved recreation areas, and there would be no money for post-fire rehab to provide important services such as repairing natural resources and reopening trails. Many businesses, including outdoor retailers, would feel the loss.
The interim committee studying the state takeover of federal lands is expected to spend about $10,000 over two years, according to the legislative budget office. They’re going to spend that money studying an idea that we already know is dead on arrival from a legal and financial perspective. And they’re wasting taxpayer money doing it.
I suggest state lawmakers spend a tiny fraction of that money investing in travel to Idaho’s federal lands and our outdoor retail stores. I think it would be helpful for them to see how outdoor recreation is one of the largest industries in Idaho, and an industry that is growing. Do your homework, folks! Stop wasting our financial resources on one more bad idea. And then stop trying to undercut a vital, expanding industry in a small state that needs all of its business activities to thrive.
Chris Haunold is the owner of Idaho Mountain Touring, an outdoor recreation retailer with stores in downtown Boise and Meridian.