Out, Damned Fed!

Author: Barrett Rainey

There’s lots of craziness going on these days in states where the Republican Party is the dominant – really dominant – political game. No place worse than North Carolina where the governor and legislature are trampling civil rights, voting rights, personal rights, privacy rights, medical rights and about every other right you can think of to play to a diminishing crowd of white, nut-ball conservative, angry voters. Much of what the North Carolina legislature has done this year will wind up in the nation’s various courts. And a lot of it will likely be undone.

But Idaho and Utah are trying not to be forgotten in all the GOP excess with yet another run at a crazy idea wing-nut Republicans in those states have nourished for many a year – a takeover of federal land. They’re promoting it again with a new cast of characters hellbent on throwing the feds off the property. Every thinking resident of those states – of ANY party – should actively work to see this completely irresponsible idea fails yet again.

There are many, many reasons to keep such irresponsible efforts from being successful. But just concentrate on one – today’s terrible wildfires. Most western states have been badly burned this year. California, Oregon, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington and Idaho. Much destruction has been on federal lands – grazing, ranching, recreational and timber.

Let’s just concentrate on one state – Idaho. Suppose Idaho owned all the federal land within its borders. All of it. Whatever was done with those lands – whatever happened on those lands – it would be up to Idaho taxpayers to take care of it and pay all the bills.

Now, focus on just one of the issues all Idahoans would have to contend with – wildfire. If the State owned all of the property on which our August fires have raged, every dollar – every dime – every penny to fight those fires would come out of the state treasury. Millions – tens of millions – would be the responsibility of the good folks of Idaho. The feds could sit on their considerable resources and roast marshmallows on the glowing coals.

“Go for it, Idaho,” they’d say. “You wanted to own it. You got it. And keep your damned flames away from our federal trees!”

So, Idaho taxpayers would be faced with a double-edged sword. One sharp edge would be the money lost in millions and millions of federal dollars now paid to Idaho coffers in lieu of taxes and from resource sales. The other edge would be the nearly impossible-to-cover costs of fighting massive blazes, then repairing all the damage.

And this. About half of all dollars spent on Idaho K-12 education comes from federal lands; whether it be timber bucks, in-lieu monies, recreation or tourist dollars. Now, if Idaho owned the land and increased timber cutting, you could make up that amount and probably more. And you might do that for a number of years. Then what? While you’re waiting many, many years for replacement trees to grow, where does the lost K-12 money come from? Rather, whom would it come from?

Year ago, Idaho had a U.S. Senator known for colorful – if not intellectual – quotes. One of them was: “It makes no sense to sell the farm to buy a sports car.” Not deep thinking. But accurate.

Even ignoring the economics and overall saneness of the fire argument, there are the hundreds of millions of dollars the feds pour into Idaho for maintenance of all that land. Throw ‘em out of Idaho and Utah – along with all federal dollars – and you’ll have either huge state tax increases or forests, lakes, rivers and range lands in worse shape than they already are.

Legislatures in both states currently have committees meeting with “experts” of this, that and the other. Some “experts” claim it’s not only possible to kick the feds out but the world – inside Utah and Idaho – would be a better place. Other “experts” say you can’t and shouldn’t.

At the moment, most of the supporters of this “out damned feds” effort are Republicans who believe timber companies and other privately owned resource extractors would be better caretakers of all those lands. While it’s possible there could be some improvements, private companies operate on the sound business principle of cost-versus-benefit. While that’s an old, well- proven and quite workable rule for business, it can seldom be applied to tasks the government undertakes for which profit is not possible.

You can argue there should be income to the states from federally owned lands within their borders. But operating and maintaining those lands is not a profit-making situation.

Before these GOP legislators get all heated up to tell the feds to take a hike, there needs to be a sound economic reason to do so. And – so far – nobody has made one.

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