Report: Transferring public lands in Idaho could cost as much as $111 million a year

Taking control of federal public lands in Idaho could cost the state $111 million a year, a new report shows.

The study by the University of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group found the state could lose millions of dollars in eight of nine different scenarios involving such a transfer.

Researchers compared various financial benefits for the state's timber industry to increased costs connected with management of the land.

The report was requested by a legislative committee tasked under a resolution known as HR22 with studying a state takeover of federal lands in Idaho. The panel will finalize its recommendation Tuesday.

Supporters of a land transfer claim timber harvests would boom under state management. Meanwhile, opponents say the boost in revenue would do little to offset the millions of dollars needed for land management expenses.

Researchers only saw a profit of $24 million a year in one scenario. In that case, Idaho would have to boost its harvest by 1 billion board-feet of timber a year and sell it at $250 per 1,000 board-feet.

Under the worst-case scenario, Idaho would increase its harvest sales by half a billion board-feet and would sell it at $150 per 1,000 board-feet. This would result in $35 million of revenue a year and $146 million of costs, resulting a loss of $111 million a year.

"The question becomes, after you consider the timber markets, is how are these lands going to be managed?" said Jay O'Laughlin, who wrote the report shortly after retiring as director of the research group. "That's going to determine the cost structure and the revenues."

O'Laughlin said the state would face steep wildfire prevention and suppression costs if it takes control of federal lands.

Currently, Idaho relies on federal firefighters to put out wildfires on state lands. By taking control of the federal lands, Idaho would be in charge of providing enough staffing and equipment to suppress the state's largest wildfires.

Idaho would also be responsible for payments the federal government now doles out to help offset losses in property taxes from nontaxable federal land within their boundaries.

"The question whether payments to counties should continue is likely to spark lively debate," O'Laughlin wrote in the report.

O'Laughlin and his researchers only studied the cost of managing 16.4 million acres of the 34 million acres of public lands in Idaho now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The group chose not to include Idaho's legally protected roadless areas and wild river corridors.

The exclusion sparked criticism from the Idaho Conservation League.

Economist Evan Hjerpe, working on behalf of the conservation group, said that HR 22 does not explicitly outline which federal lands should or should not be transferred. Instead, the conservation group believes the resolution requires the state to manage 28 million acres of public lands.

Hjerpe also wrote that O'Laughlin's report failed to include the transition costs of taking over federal lands.

"The initial costs have been estimated elsewhere at almost $2 billion dollars of loss to the state of Idaho," Hjerpe wrote in his review. "In conclusion, the PAG report suffers from a number of deficiencies and has only quantified part of the fiscal cost to the state of Idaho."

O'Laughlin responded that his direction from the committee was to only study the costs once the transfer was completed. Anything else, he said, would be too confusing.

The legislative committee was formed after Idaho lawmakers passed the resolution in 2013 demanding that the federal government cede most of the public lands it oversees in Idaho to the state.

Soon after, two contradictory reports were published offering different estimates on how much the endeavor would cost. The Idaho Conservation League declared the state would lose money, while the Idaho Department of Lands said Idaho would gain money.