COEUR d’ALENE — A U.S. House committee will take up Congressman Raul Labrador’s Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act today despite some resistance from conservation groups.
The bill, HR 2316, would create a pilot project that gives states and counties more of a say in the management of no more than 2 percent of the national forests in the West.
The House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Federal Lands will be hearing that bill today at 11 a.m. Pacific time, along with four other land use bills including one that would simply turn federal lands over to the states where they are located.
Conservation groups, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, say Labrador’s bill is an attempt to undermine public land ownership.
They say the Labrador bill would transfer management authority for large segments of our national forests to governor-appointed advisory committees and exempt these lands from conservation laws, while expecting the American taxpayer to continue to fund costs associated with wildfires on these public lands.
Steve Kline, director of government relations at TRCP, said the Labrador bill is problematic on a couple of fronts, first being that the selected lands would no longer be subjected to federal conservation laws, including those that allow for public comment and engagement in the land use decision-making process.
Labrador’s bill specifically states the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act apply only in so far as they apply under state law and the advisory committee must consult with Indian tribes as well as any collaboratives in existence at the enactment of the act.
“The advisory committee that would be responsible for the management of these lands is very narrowly defined,” Kline said in an email statement Wednesday. “(The advisory group) would not be required to include anyone with any experience actually managing forest lands, nor would the advisory committee be required to include anyone from the hunting or fishing community.”
According to the bill, the committee must include a representative from a local government, from the timber industry, a grazing permit holder and a representative from the recreation industry.
“There's also nothing in the legislation that would preclude some of the most important places for hunters and anglers in the national forest system from being turned over to state management in order to facilitate resource extraction,” Kline said. “This isn't just about access, it's also about having places worth accessing.”
The bill specifically states “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict access to the National Forest System land included in a community forest demonstration area for hunting, fishing, and other related purposes; or valid and existing rights regarding such National Forest System land, including rights of any federally recognized Indian tribe.”
“And as a fiscal conservative myself, I find the bill's provision that the federal taxpayer would still be expected to pick up the tab for wildfire while giving up any meaningful input on the land management framework, highly objectionable,” Kline said.
The group has sent subcommittee members a letter signed by 115 national and state-based hunting and fishing organizations urging lawmakers to reject attempts to seize America’s public lands.
Dan Popkey, communications director for Labrador, said Labrador addressed most of those concerns in an op-ed column that was published in several Idaho newspapers last summer.
“Recently, I introduced the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, which would set aside up to 2 percent of the 193 million acres in the National Forest System for state and local management,” Labrador said in the column. “Sadly, some critics seem uninterested in whether local management of federal lands might restore forest health, reduce catastrophic fires and revive rural economies.”
Labrador said opponents of the forest products industry fear that local management will prove superior to control from Washington, D.C. Such evidence, of course, would boost efforts in Congress to reform federal land management.
He said new data shows the potential. In a March report, the Property and Environment Research Center compared state and federal management. PERC found that Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management.
“But the critics don't care about facts,” Labrador said. “They're making an ideological argument — federal control is better than local — not one based on what's best for the land and the people.”
Labrador said he believes local management is an antidote for the sickness that ails the national forests and rural communities.
“That includes more harvest and efficient salvage following fires. It also means higher paying jobs and fewer devastating fires,” he wrote. “Just as a scientific hypothesis is tested in the laboratory, my bill tests the hypothesis that state control is better for forest management. It's a shame that critics aren't interested in learning what works best for the health of our forests and rural communities.”
If the bill passes the subcommittee today it will move to the full committee for consideration.