By FRANK PRIESTLEY
For the Capital Press
It's federally managed land, not federal land. That's the point Custer County leaders are trying to make. But so far it has fallen on deaf ears.
Honestly, where or who are local leaders expected to turn to when the heavy hand of the federal government throws cold water on every effort to build or expand a crippled economy?
Last April Custer County commissioners staged a protest over the locking up of federal land through the declaration of a wilderness study area. The tactic of using wilderness study area declarations to restrict access to public lands is both widespread and controversial.
It requires congressional approval to designate wilderness. But federal bureaucrats can create study areas without congressional oversight. These study areas are frequently detrimental to rural economies in the West and rarely meet definitions stipulated by the Wilderness Act, which requires wilderness values and includes the phrase "untrammeled by man."
This gets us to the heart of the problem in Custer County, which is made up of over 90 percent federally managed land. As federal bureaucrats tighten restrictions on land use, rural economies suffocate. Locking up resources on public lands leads to job loss. Young people who grow up in rural areas have to leave after high school graduation if there is no place to go to work. Entrepreneurship is stifled by the lack of opportunity and the downward spiral continues.
With limited tax base rural counties struggle to provide basic services like police and fire protection. Lack of private land ownership hurts rural school districts' ability to levy property taxes to replace worn-out buildings and poor quality schools detract from a rural area's ability to attract entrepreneurs.
Raging fires that burned over 1.5 million acres last summer in Idaho alone are largely the result of poor management of public land. In our opinion, it makes sense to put people back to work in our forests and start managing them sustainably. Both the forests and rural economies would benefit.
Idaho is made up of over 60 percent federally managed land. At present, Idaho has about 4 million acres tied up in federally designated wilderness areas and another 2.7 million acres tied up in wilderness study areas. In fact we have wilderness areas that are bigger than some Eastern states.
But we fail to see any validity to arguments raised by the environmental community that wilderness stimulates rural economies. If that were the case, places like Challis, Mackay and Salmon would be bustling with economic activity. The fact of the matter is wilderness travelers are limited in numbers and frugal in their purchases of local goods and services.
A significant percentage of the land residing under the wilderness study area designation in Idaho does not meet the definition of wilderness. To illustrate this point consider that the land that came under dispute last spring at the top of the Herd Creek drainage in Custer County contains a road and a campground that was constructed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Many if not most other wilderness study areas in the state also suffer from a lack of wilderness qualities under the definition set out by the Wilderness Act. We understand that a lot of people in this nation have romantic notions about the West and they want to preserve open space and lands with wilderness qualities. At this point, the question becomes at what cost?
We applaud Custer County's efforts to challenge the federal government and to force federal bureaucrats to advance the discussion. It's time for the federal government to loosen its chokehold on rural Idaho and learn how to become a partner that can both satisfy its charge of protecting the great open spaces of the American West and managing public lands in a way that benefit local economies.
Frank Priestley is president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.