- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho must no longer demand that the federal government handover its public lands, but instead pursue a long-term collaborative approach with federal officials if it wants to be successful in achieving a state takeover, a legislative panel agreed Tuesday.

“I think for us to make a demand … is meaningless,” said state Republican Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, who is the chairman of the legislative committee studying the pros and cons of Idaho wresting control of public land managed by the federal government. “It certainly doesn’t help us.”

The tone is a marked shift from the 2013 resolution Idaho lawmakers passed that explicitly demanded federal officials immediately cede most of its public lands -which cover nearly 60 percent of Idaho- back to the state.

Like many other Western states, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly expressed frustration of federal management on public land. Conservative lawmakers argue that under federal management, wildfires have increased while the state’s once booming logging industry has all but tapered off.

Recently elected Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, former committee co-chair, reminded lawmakers Tuesday that Idaho took up this issue because officials felt there was a strong economic gain to be made by taking back the lands.

However, opponents like conservation groups and some of Idaho’s Democratic leaders have expressed alarm that lawmakers have not properly assessed the costs of transitioning to managing public lands, which could lead to the state selling off the lands to cover the increased expenses.

On Tuesday, lawmakers didn’t finalize a recommendation. Instead, they spent nearly two hours discussing what should and should not be in the report.

“I think most of us understand this is a long-term issue,” said Republican state Sen. John Tippets of Montpelier. “If we ever get the land title, it’ll be worth our while not to make any sort of demand but approach this as a cooperative effort. We should try that approach at least initially.”

Lawmakers did not, however, agree how much more time and resources the legislature should dedicate while working long-term with the federal government on the public lands issue.

Committee member and state Democratic Sen. Michelle Stennett of Ketchum said she was concerned with the committee promising a long-term effort without knowing how much it would cost. She pointed to Utah’s efforts to take control of its federal lands, saying lawmakers have spent nearly $500,000 so far just on studies and legal issues.

As of September, the federal lands committee had spent nearly $61,000 to pay for outside legal counsel after Idaho’s Attorney General Lawrence Wasden questioned the constitutionality of taking control of federally managed public lands.

Winder said the panel will likely meet one more time before the Idaho Legislature convenes Jan. 12 to finalize the recommendation.

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