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Posts Tagged ‘Idaho’

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on at least one bill to address the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS), which supplies rural counties with federal cash to counterbalance declining forest products revenues. As it turns out, the federal government is out of money.

The imminent end of SRS is of some serious concern to North Idaho counties which have received millions of dollars in direct annual payments which may no longer arrive. Recently, several Idaho counties floated a trial balloon for a “Community Forest Trust” in which the federal government would set aside some 200,000 acres of federal forest lands in Idaho for local management under local laws for local revenues.

While we’re sincerely sympathetic to the plight of the rural counties, we’re concerned that some of the solutions proposed so far are ill-advised, and would likely compound the problem of funding local government services. In a letter sent today to the Shoshone County Commissioners who solicited our input on the counties’ proposal, KEA noted:

The proposal would essentially transfer land out of public control and established multiple-use management and would eliminate environmental and procedural protections that have served to improve our forests, watersheds, and wildlife resources.  Moreover, ultimately, we don’t know that such a proposal would solve the structural economic problems the SRS was intended to bridge.

Our letter described major concerns with the environmental protections, the selection of the trust lands, the accountability of the trust and trustees, the value lost to the federal taxpayer, and the legal difficulties posed by federal ownership but local control.  But our letter was also concerned about the failure to see handwriting on the wall:

While we absolutely concur that rural Idaho counties need a long-term solution for schools and roads funding, ultimately, coupling a solution to federal lands management may be too constrictive. For example, broadband, health care, education, and clean energy are economic sectors we’d emphasize for more sustained growth, and we’d certainly hope Congress would focus on those opportunities in the SRS reauthorization debate.

Indeed, this proposal of a Community Forest Trust appears to be a doubling-down on a bet that forest resources will be an economic engine like it was several decades ago.  Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence that it’ll work. Currently on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, there is a huge backlog inventory of timber “sold” by the federal government but not yet actually cut. And mills continue to close — not for lack of timber supply, but for lack of product demand. A Community Forest Trust, which would presumably put more timber onto the market to generate revenue for the Trust, would only compound the current supply and demand imbalance.

This is a tough spot for counties, which will have immediate financial needs that will go unmet if SRS isn’t reauthorized. There are lots of ideas on how to do things better. But the counties shouldn’t be clamoring for Congress to make things worse.

Update 9/21: Here’s a statement from Congressman Labrador. “Congressman Labrador and the county commissioners from throughout Idaho were unanimous in their desire to find a solution that would increase the revenue stream from our federal forests.”  Why? “Diseased forests on a colossal scale in immediate danger of catastrophic wildfire.”  No risk of understatement by our Congressman.

 

 

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Idaho’s tradition of fierce protection of private property rights is well known and well established. The State of Idaho has legislated layers and layers of protection for the wide majority of Idahoans who particularly value the rights that accompany the ownership of land. However, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld – property rights are not absolute. The right to own property is not the same as the right to do whatever one wants.

Indeed, for nearly 100 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld land use regulations of property as a proper role for the government to protect the health and general welfare of the public. Indeed, zoning and other land use regulations have helped to define what it means to be a good neighbor in a particular community. In a perfect world, everyone would have perfect neighbors. However, courts have enforced land use regulation as real-world protection for real-world bad neighbors.

It is fundamental, for example, that ownership of a property does not give anyone the right to interfere with someone else’s use and enjoyment of their property. Ownership of a property does not give anyone the right to use more than their fair share of community resources or other resources held in common.

What I am allowed to do on my property, therefore, is properly balanced with the impacts I have on yours. Indeed, your property values are probably protected by reasonable restrictions on my property rights.

Laws and regulations are how a community achieves this balancing. In our community, where we hope to preserve a rural lifestyle in North Idaho, we should expect that our land use regulations would balance rural land uses more favorably than suburban sprawl. Similarly in our community, where our economy and quality of life so greatly depend on natural resources, we should expect that our regulations should balance resource protection more favorably than, for example, land uses that could lead to degradation of our beautiful lakes and drinking water supplies.

This regulatory balancing is intricate, difficult, and fraught with local complications. But despite the increasingly vocal complaints of the increasingly misinformed, this balancing is indeed legal, it is indeed constitutional, and it is indeed much more preferable than no regulation at all. Proper land use regulation is certainly important for environmental protection but it is also important to the growth of our community. Most critically, though, proper land use regulation is actually important to mutual protection of everyone’s property rights.

 

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Often, our job seems like an exercise in futility. Today, KEA sent yet another set of comments regarding wolf management to Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game.  Shielded from lawsuits (maybe), the Department is free to push the state’s wolf management balance back toward extinction.

On the table at the quarterly meeting of the Fish and Game Commission’s meeting in Salmon this week, are hunting and trapping seasons for wolves that we believe go far beyond what would be reasonable and sustainable.  With no limits on taking wolves in some regions – including the panhandle – the plan isn’t really much of a plan.

Fundamentally, we continue to oppose a wildlife management philosophy that so strongly favors an un-endangered class of animals at the detriment of an endangered or threatened one.  The balance between predator and prey is one that will reach equilibrium naturally if left alone to do so.  Indeed, we think that predators should return naturally to their fundamental ecological roles instead of the heavy-handed human interventions to adjust nature to our preferences.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the political desire for more active management. We would just prefer that management be based in facts, science, and transparent honesty.

The current stated target population for wolves in Idaho — 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs — is not based in science, but rather old school ideas about what minimal wolf populations should be.  Of course, Congressionally-established immunity from judicial review helps. Still, accepting arguendo the premise that there should be specific numeric targets, having no hunting quotas or limits whatsoever in certain zones is arbitrary and indefensible.

Idaho’s plan proposes tracking and monitoring wolf kills, with the Commission supposedly able to review and adjust the plan at its November and January meetings. But the plan gives no indication as to how the adjustments would be made, and under what criteria. Indeed, we suspect that there are secret harvest quotas in each of the no-quota zones, but that the Department and the Commission do not have the political courage to honestly announce them.

Instead, we have a season that quite literally relies on the failure of hunters. While complete extermination of a wolf population in a particular zone might be cheered by some, it would be a disaster for wolf management, and it would probably not survive federal scrutiny.  Even if there is reason to be emboldened by the recent Congressional intervention, the Commission should not so blatantly test the limits of federal interests if it wants to continue state control over wolf management in the long run.

Sure, other animals are managed without limits. But the Department’s rationalizing analogy to management of black bears and mountain lions, for example, is inapposite. Other species have longer histories of much more robust, stable populations, with well-established and similarly stable hunting seasons. Also, black bears and mountain lions are not as endangered.

To be completely clear, Kootenai Environmental Alliance is not opposed to sustainable management of sustainable wolf populations if such management is based in fact, sound science, and honest transparency. In this instance, though, Idaho Fish and Game has proposed no such plan.

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In a letter dated March 4th, the district managers for both the Coeur d’Alene and Boise districts of the BLM rejected the proposed land exchange that would have transferred some 9000 acres of North Idaho BLM property to M3, in exchange for some 11,000 acres of M3 lands in the Boise foothills.  M3, an Arizona-based development company with an interest in a large development proposal outside of Eagle, had intended to immediately flip the North Idaho BLM properties to the Idaho Forest Group for timber harvesting. In the letter, BLM says “We have concluded this exchange proposal is not in the public’s best interest.”

Last summer, KEA submitted a letter to Congressional representatives and BLM sharply critical of the proposed exchange.

According to the BLM’s analysis, the acquisition of the sagebrush steppe southern parcels was not equivalent to the loss of high natural resource and timber values of the forested North Idaho lands. BLM noted specifically that the value of the North Idaho properties would be expected to increase substantially in value, while the value of the southern parcels would “remain at or near current value” due to their limited development potential.

The BLM also noted that many of the North Idaho parcels proposed for exchange had high resource values for “wildlife, fisheries, recreation, open space, timber, and threatened and endangered species habitat and connectivity” that were not equaled by the southern properties.

Notably, the BLM letter seemed to foreclose any further action on this exchange for the immediate future. The letter says BLM will not consider “further modifications or refinements” from M3 until the BLM’s Boise office completes its planning process for the Four Rivers area, where the southern part of the exchange would occur. The Four Rivers plan is expected to be completed in 2013.

 

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For all of our friends and members who wrote a letter, sent an email, or signed a petition, here’s some moderately good news from Boise. Even though, by all accounts, it is a tough budget year for Idaho, Governor Otter has allocated full funding in his budget for water quality monitoring. Our friends at Idaho Conservation League who have been monitoring the monitoring issue from their offices near the capitol, say that the Governor recommended funding for water quality monitoring in the full amount of $349,000.

However, Otter is proposing to use money from the water pollution control account – an account where DEQ banks revolving funds for drinking water and wastewater facility loans and grants. Typically, the state uses this fund to provide the match to federal funds for these important projects.

Although the DEQ account apparently has a balance sufficient to use on water quality monitoring this year, it is not a long-term solution. As our local municipalities look for help in funding very costly wastewater projects to clean up the Spokane River, for example, taking money from the revolving account for monitoring may prove to be funding one critical water quality program at the expense of another. Unfortunately, the state may be in the same position next year unless additional funding is identified.

In any event, the next step in the budget process will be to get the legislature’s important JFAC (Joint Finance Appropriations Committee) to approve the funding. We will keep you up to date.

 

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For whatever the reason — budget priorities, neglect, antipathy to federal mandates — Idaho’s lack of proper attention to clean water is tilting toward disaster.

The Clean Water Act is one of this country’s most important environmental laws. Passed by Congress in 1972, it is responsible for some impressive success stories in the nation’s environmental history. However, in Idaho, the state’s failure to implement some of the basic requirements of the Clean Water Act is putting our waterways at risk.

For two years, Idaho has failed to do the basic water quality monitoring that is the underpinning of the Clean Water Act. Idaho has also failed to put into place the required regulations to keep clean waters from being degraded. Idaho is one of only four states that still refuses to issue water quality permits, leaving it up to the EPA to do so.  Idaho hasn’t found a way to properly regulate septic systems or stormwater. Idaho does a poor job of addressing non-point source pollution. And there is very little in the way of enforcement.

Clean water in Idaho is central to a healthy populace and a healthy economy. Clean water, in many respects, is what makes Idaho a great place to live.

But Idaho’s water quality program is dangerously close to violating both the letter and spirit of the Clean Water Act, and without more, the state is perhaps heading for a lawsuit trainwreck.  More importantly though, we don’t believe Idaho’s approach to water quality comports what Idahoans want from their government.  Tell the governor. Tell your legislators. We need a Clean Water Revival.

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After some detailed study and discussion, KEA finally weighed in on the proposed land exchange between Arizona developer M3 Eagle, Idaho Forest Group (IFG), and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), expressing serious concerns.

The complicated exchange would provide M3 with key parcels related to a development proposal just north of Eagle, it would supply BLM with some 12000 acres of M3’s surplus sagebrush steppe lands in the Boise foothills, and it would supply Idaho Forest Group with some 8000 acres of BLM forest lands in North Idaho. M3 and IFG would like the Idaho congressional delegation to jump start the process with legislation to authorize the exchange pending environmental studies. (News coverage available here and here and here.)

KEA has had the opportunity to review presentations on the proposal by BLM’s North Idaho office and by Idaho Forest Group, in which the pros and cons of the proposal were thoroughly explored. In a letter to Congressional representatives sent yesterday, KEA expressed concern with the proposal:

In sum, on the substance, we believe the present proposal drains critical public resources from BLM’s inventory in North Idaho while not providing comparable economic or environmental value in the Boise foothills. On the procedure, we believe that any such proposal should be subjected to a full environmental analysis and a comprehensive parcel-by-parcel appraisal prior to any approvals – legislated or otherwise.

The letter notes that KEA doesn’t necessarily or automatically oppose land exchange proposals with the federal government. Indeed, consolidating parcels for conservation benefit or acquiring recreational access are often accomplished through land exchanges. But this proposal would essentially exhaust BLM’s North Idaho inventory, making local exchanges much more difficult for the foreseeable future.

Most importantly, though, these complex exchanges require a great deal of study first. Each and every parcel needs a thorough environmental assessment and a thorough market appraisal, and these evaluations need to be accomplished — and released for public input — before approvals are given. In this respect, we expressed concern to our congressional delegation that legislation on this proposal would be premature, and probably prejudicially so.

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