Planning a Heist

Believe what many Idaho legislators are saying: They want to turn our public lands private

As the sun shines our way, minutes more each day, we Inland Northwesterners shed our winter clothing as fast as we can. We bare our skin and liberate our toes and drink in the spring green of the trees.

And when the days are ripe enough, we'll head to the trails to bike, or the hills to hike, or the streams to fish, or the lakes to motor. It's the time of year that we most appreciate our amazing range of open spaces — public lakes, public parks and public land.

Idaho boasts 30 state parks and manages 2.4 million acres of forested trust land. Within the Idaho borders lie 437 lakes. In addition, Idaho contains 34.5 million acres of federal public land. This abundance of natural landscape attracts outdoor sportsmen and sportswomen from home and abroad and keeps lifelong residents from straying very far.

But protecting our natural heritage requires vigilance on the part of everyday Idahoans who hunt, fish, hike and camp. I repeat the old cautionary slogan: "They're fixin' to steal your land."

From the beginning of Idaho's history, some faction or another has tried to convert our public lands to private use. In the past 50 years, we've watched the waxing and waning of the Posse Comitatus, the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Wise Use movement, and most recently the Cliven Bundy brigade, who moved in on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge next door in Oregon for 40 days.

These periodic flare-ups are triggered by resentment of the presence and power of the federal government and its environmental regulations. Nobody likes to be told what to do or not to do — and Western farmers and cattlemen are especially touchy. Their land is an extension of their egos, and they may think that your public land is theirs, too.

Frequently, these Western rebellions have been led by gun-waving, on-the-fringe rebels of the West who believe that their physical presence gives them a right to ownership of land they may be squatting on.

North Idaho's former state Representative Phil Hart was more subtle. Phil quietly helped himself to land and lumber, and spent eight years in the Idaho legislature before his voting constituency ousted him from office.

The current effort to transfer Idaho's federal lands is a well-disguised heist being run by Idaho's sitting legislators. Converting Idaho's federal land to state ownership would take an act of Congress — and we all know how hard it is to get Congress to act. Besides, taking over the federal lands is a wild and crazy pipe dream.

In no way can Idaho afford to manage those 34.5 million acres of federal lands and all the programs that go with them. Idaho is a debtor state that receives more in federal funds than it pays in federal taxes.

So the logical extension of taking over the federal lands would be to sell them. And if not to sell, to manage them for profit.

Idaho's chronicler Randy Stapilus tells us that over the years, 41 percent of the state lands that Idaho received upon gaining statehood have been converted from public lands to private hands. So it can happen.

The May 17 primary election may bring us some hope for sanity on the federal land grab and other down-to-earth issues. Three of the most right-wing conservative legislators were turned out by their fellow Republican voters — Senator Sheryl Nuxoll of Cottonwood, along with three-term Representatives Shannon McMillan of Shoshone County and Kathy Sims of Coeur d'Alene, all of whom received high marks from the notoriously far-right and anti-environmental Freedom Foundation.

Two other elected officials who lost their jobs on May 17 have been especially vocal in support of taking over the federal lands — Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik, and seven-term state Representative Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home, who was once quoted as saying a woman cannot become pregnant after rape and incest because it is too traumatic. (Rep. Nielsen reportedly retracted the statement, but his words were too bizarrely ignorant and offensive to let them die.)

These public officials didn't lose their elections entirely on their federal land takeover stance, or due to their embarrassing public statements. The public may just want less anti-fed talk and more common-sense action.

This time it's our own legislators who may be fixin' to steal our public land. Tell them it's a rotten idea.

And appreciate the run or walk over the public trails and the delicious swim in our public waters. Summer in Idaho's public lands is glorious.♦

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