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Laying ground for state management

There’s a growing consensus that our system of federal land management is broken. It is not protecting forests, waters and range and it’s not sustaining local and regional economies.

Until now, leadership on devolving management has mostly come from state and local leaders, including legislators and county commissioners in Idaho. Driving the conversations are very real concerns about the long-term health of the lands we in the West cherish.

This month we carried the issue to Capitol Hill with the first forum organized by a new congressional coalition, the Federal Land Action Group. We talked about solutions, including my bill to allow local officials to manage up to 2 percent of U.S. Forest Service lands as a pilot project.

Our aim is to convince Congress to reform management of 640 million acres in federal hands by sharing control and possibly transferring ownership to state and local managers. It’s a huge job, but the facts favor us.

Federal management has brought catastrophic fire, unending litigation and a bloated bureaucracy far removed from the trust model envisioned by President Theodore Roosevelt. Instead, America is squandering a national resource that should be providing us the water, timber, forage and minerals vital to a healthy economy, while conserving wildlife and recreation.

“The government once managed national forests for perpetual sustainability and made money doing so,” testified Greg Walcher, who ran the Colorado Department of Natural Resources for five years. “Today the Forest Service is more costly for taxpayers than ever before and yet cannot overcome its own systemic and political obstacles to managing forest professionally…It is no longer credible to argue that states would do a worse job of managing these precious resources.”

The Forest Service acknowledges it needs help.

“The Forest Service is so busy meeting procedural requirements, such as preparing voluminous plans, studies, and associated documentation, that it has trouble fulfilling its historic mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” says an internal 2002 report, “The Process Predicament.”

The Federal Land Action Group is just getting started. It was formed in April by Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Stewart, both of Utah. They were on hand at the forum, as were Reps. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Mark Amodei and Cresent Hardy of Nevada.

We’re planning another forum in September. It’s important that our colleagues understand that this is not about privatization and denying public access. It’s about saving our natural legacy.

Winning support will take time, but I’m confident in the long run. A federal government saddled with debt can’t afford the inefficient bureaucracy and job-killing practices that have shuttered sawmills and grazing operations across the region. Neither can Americans tolerate management that has put 30 percent of our national forests at high risk for catastrophic fire.

Westerners know and love these lands and have every incentive to ensure their good health. The status quo, said Mr. Walcher, means “a slow death sentence for the nation’s forests and other great resources.”


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