Federal Land Transfer Causes Controversy Between State of Idaho and Indian Tribes

The Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce and Couer d’Alene nations are demanding that Idaho's 34 million acres of federal public lands be returned to them rather than transferred to state control.

"If the federal government is going to transfer title to any lands, they should be transferred back to their rightful owner, which would be Indian tribes," said Helo Hancock, a lobbyist for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

Leaders of the three tribes were among those who testified on Oct. 28 before the Idaho State Legislature's Federal Lands Interim Committee, which is pondering a resolution approved by state lawmakers in April requesting that the federal government “imminently transfer title” to more than 34 million acres of Idaho’s public land. The committee is expected to issue a report to the Legislature in 2015.{C}

The tribes, as well as many conservation, hunting and fishing groups, are opposed to the proposal. They said keeping public lands under federal ownership prevents the state from selling acreage for revenue or to companies seeking to extract resources. Tribal leaders also cited treaty rights guaranteeing off-reservation fishing and hunting rights on the "unoccupied lands of the United States."

"You've got to understand that when we made that treaty, it means that we would have that opportunity to continue to come out into these areas," Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Nathan Small told the Associated Press. "We feel that this notion to transfer it all to the state is going to diminish that right that we have made with the United States."

Public lands were not meant to be sold to private individuals or corporations, Small said during the hearing. When Idaho has allowed private entities onto public lands in the past, it hasn't turned out well for wildlife and public access, he said, noting 17 of Idaho’s phosphate mines, permitted to operate on state land, are classified as Superfund sites.

Federal agencies manage more than 53,000 square miles of forest, rangeland and wilderness areas in Idaho; an area the size of Arkansas. The U.S. Forest Service oversees the majority of that land, estimated at 32,000 square miles, followed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Idaho Department of Lands projects the state could receive up to $75 million in revenue annually for public schools, universities and other institutions by allowing more timber harvest and other activities on public lands now managed by the federal government.

It would cost it $46 million to manage the same public land that it cost the federal government $200 million to manage last year, the Idaho Department of Lands reported in August.

Conservationists blasted that estimate, noting that it didn’t factor in basic upkeep such as road and trail maintenance.

“The federal government spent $22 million alone on roads and trails in 2011,” Tom Flynn of Outdoor Alliance told the committee.” If roads and trails aren’t maintained, that would have serious consequences on our community.”

“There has been a history of these types of proposals. Ultimately, the foundation for those proposals has effectively been refuted by the courts and proven unworkable,” Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said during the hearing.