Public Lands for Profit or Public?

Grumbling about federal control of local lands is nothing new.  Understanding how the federal government came into possession of land does matter.   The US government owns about half of western lands. This is partly due to the fact that much of the territory in the western United States is either mountainous or dry and infertile and wasn’t readily snatched up by homesteaders.  The United States expanded in its early years by acquiring or purchasing land, eventually transferring it to state governments or individuals through homesteading or land grants and encouraging settlers to relocate to the west.  In the 20th century the government switched gears and started focusing its efforts on retaining the land it owned.


For example in Idaho land owned by the federal government today is   61.9% (32.8 million of 52.9 million acres).  About 14% of the public land in Idaho has been protected with a wilderness designation and is off-limits to mining and timber harvesting. Most of Idaho’s public land is managed under a multiple-use mandate, meaning that the land can be used for multiple activities such as hunting or camping.


Today, there is a prevailing argument that the federal government should hand its land ownership over to the states, and Congress has even considered passing legislation to do just that.  If the states were to gain control of the federally held land, it would likely impose high administrative costs on the states. On top of that, the federal government gives states money in exchange for the ownership of the land to compensate for taxes that the state “might” have collected if in private ownership.  Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus once referred to the public land as “our second paycheck.”


Of the total federal lands, 44 percent is reserved for grazing and 42 percent for forests and wildlife. Less than 5 percent of the total is for defense or atomic energy.  The public lands of the West are mainly public domain.   Idaho’s public lands serve as a vital habitat for fish and wildlife, provide clean drinking water for our families, help drive our economy, create amazing recreation opportunities, and support our way of life in innumerable ways. People from all around the world come here to admire Idaho’s towering mountains, explore remote canyons, experience the adventure of a lifetime on one of Idaho’s wild and scenic rivers, and more.



Since local government cannot collect taxes on federally owned property, the U.S. Department of the Interior issues payments to local governments to replace lost property tax revenue from federal land. The payments, known as “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PILTs), are typically used for funding services such as fire departments, police protection, school construction and roads.

Idaho’s 44 counties will receive a combined $35.8 million under this program to offset the loss of property taxes on federally managed land within the state, the Interior Department announced recently.  This certainly appears to be a huge economic benefit to Idaho, the people and protects the land.  However, this appears to be the crux of the who should own it problem.  It’s usually money or politics, in this case both.   Since the early days of the republic there has been disagreement about the disposition of federal lands, with many powerful groups agitating for private exploitation.


Idaho state legislators hope to put a value on the 32 million acres of Idaho that the federal government manages.  Idaho lawmakers recently advanced a resolution whose sponsor claims it could bring more money to rural Idaho.  Critics argue the resolution won’t work and would waste millions in taxpayer dollars and threaten public lands.  Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, presented to the House Resources and Conservation Committee a resolution calling on the state Federalism Committee to study the value of Idaho’s public lands.  The Federalism Committee, made up of 10 Idaho legislators, monitors the impact of federal legislation on Idaho.  Horman said the study would be used to inform Congress of the value of federally managed lands in the hopes of increasing funding from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILT program.  PILT compensates states with money to offset possible loss of tax revenue.  $35.8 million apparently doesn’t do it for this group.  The payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each county or jurisdiction and the population of those areas.  Idaho lawmakers on the Federalism Committee, which deals with state sovereignty issues, hired a Utah company for $250,000 to appraise federal land in three counties to determine how much tax revenue the land might generate if it were privately owned and subject to property taxes.

The contract with Utah-based a Company covers federal land in three of Idaho’s 44 counties — Boundary County in northern Idaho, Canyon County in southwestern Idaho and Clearwater County in north-central Idaho.  Some Idaho lawmakers have said that the state should get more than it has historically received from the PILT program.  Under this year’s PILT payment, Boundary County is receiving $886,000, Canyon County $56,000 and Clearwater County $896,000.

Idaho lawmakers advanced a resolution whose sponsor claims it could bring more money to rural Idaho. Critics argue the resolution won’t work and would waste millions in taxpayer dollars and threaten public lands.  The federal government calculates PILT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, based on both the number of acres owned by the federal government and the population of the county.  That population factor means some of the Idaho’s rural counties with a large number of federal acres received the lowest payments per acre.  This begs the question as to whether this is about fairness or simply  more money for counties with smaller populations.  A rural county may have  a substantial amount of acreage in public lands but a low population.   Perhaps the issue is not how much but how the money is distributed.





Land that is not situated for easy development or other use is hard to quantify for tax valuation.  The worth of Idaho’s public lands, so popular for outdoor activities from hunting and fishing to hiking and bird watching may have a greater value based on the revenue it provides through the activity generated.

According to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, outdoor recreation in Idaho created $6.3 billion in consumer spending in 2013 and generated $461 million in state and local tax revenues. The department estimated that the state’s recreation lands supported roughly 77,000 private sector jobs throughout Idaho in 2013.[5] Those numbers certainly have increased.  Federal lands certainly generate revenue  and for the same reasons.  What is a value of an acre of federally owned land?   One legislator stated  “… When the federal government controls that much of our land, as our population density increases on the remaining part of that land, it’s no wonder our property taxes are skyrocketing.”  How many houses does he believe we should build in one of these wilderness areas?  Being rational this is not a solution to population growth or property taxes.

Until 1976, a total of 1.144 billion acres of federal lands were disposed of.  Those who wanted these lands to pass into private ownership were alarmed when Congress passed a law in 1976 directing the Bureau of Land Management to hold land “in perpetuity” instead of systematically disposing of it. This triggered what was known as the Sagebrush Revolt, which peaked in 1979. The so-called revolt was an effort by miners and ranchers to give control of the federal lands to the states. This movement had run its course by the early 1980s.


Give it back to Idaho, some  elected leaders know what we need and want, or do they even care what Idahoans want?   The federal government should be paying us more some say.  This so called 2nd paycheck needs a different distribution some suggest.  This seems more like a rural urban divide argument.   We represent more land vs you represent more people.  Which should take precedence?  We need to consider the intended purposes of the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes.    “The payments, known as “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PILTs), are typically used for funding services such as fire departments, police protection, school construction and roads.”  If that’s the case then the distribution question is clarified.  Populated areas create a greater use and need for the money.  Pristine wilderness areas are beautiful for hiking, fishing, etc but have much less demand for the services the PILT is created to find.

Our problems and our politicians gravitate around two concerns, money and politics. The concept of the “public good” is often just an after thought, a good cover story. Public lands from local parks to our wilderness areas are for the public benefit and for the public to enjoy. As to those political leaders who focus on money rather than our public lands I say, move on.


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