Give Me Land, Lots of Land

Boise State Public Radio holds community conversation on public land debate


Consider yourself warned: Idaho has officially moved on to its next great debate. Like the two-year blood sport of Statehouse demagoguery surrounding Obamacare, a scorched-earth firestorm over who should manage public lands seems destined to occupy the Statehouse for at least the next two sessions.

"The federal government needs to get its financial house in order. There will be a day of reckoning, and then what do we do?" asked Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke.

The seven-term Republican House member and longtime Cassia County cattleman sat perched atop a makeshift stage at Beside Bardenay April 10, taking part in Boise State Public Radio's so-called "Community Conversation" on the future of Gem State public lands.

Bedke kept an eye on his watch throughout the conversation, seeming anxious to return to his Oakley ranch following the recently wrapped 2013 Idaho Legislature. The session included the passage of two lands-related measures: the creation of a study group on public land management, and a nonbinding resolution demanding the federal government turn over public land to the state.

"What if they, someday, just tossed the keys in our laps and walked away?" Bedke asked. It was another of a number of hypotheticals that the speaker offered the audience. "I contend that [Idaho] already has a very successful land management model."

Time and again, Bedke referred to Idaho's 3.6 million acres of endowment lands, granted to the state in 1890 and managed by the Idaho Department of Lands. A few feet away sat the man who helps manage those lands: Dave Groeschl, state forester and deputy director of forestry and fire at the IDOL.

"About 1 million acres of that land is forested, and that generates about $50 million in income," said Groeschl, referring to the financial returns of timber sales and commercial interests that are generated for Idaho public schools.

"I think we can all agree that we do a very good job at managing the [endowment lands]. We should do the same thing, if given the chance, with federal lands," said Bedke. "Now think about this for a moment," he said, offering another hypothetical: "Imagine 400,000 acres set aside with proceeds dedicated to public education. Think about another 500,000 acres to help us with funding for roads. Another 500,000 acres could go for health and welfare. And we're talking about 37 million acres of that land in Idaho."

But Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, was having none of it.

"Look, we all want to have the best public education for our children, but selling off our public land is no way to achieve that," he said. "These lands are the legacy of all Americans, they're not just owned by Idaho. This is a radical idea."

Dr. John Freemuth, professor of Boise State's Master of Public Administration program, put it even more plainly.

"The fundamental issue is money," said Freemuth. "The devil is in the details."

And the devil is just starting to heat things up.