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Op-Ed on Wilderness - A good read (from Don Amador, BRC)

Ed A. Stevens

NAXJA Member
NAXJA Member
Dear Access Interests,

As some of you are watching the Thompson/Boxer Wilderness Bill in NW CA, I thought
the comments from Jim Gerber (a retired FS officer) might add to some of the concepts
that local access folks in NW CA and BRC are talking about regarding Wilderness
and the need for access to public lands and that there is a better way.
--- Don Amador, BRC

Sunday May 08, 2005
The hidden costs of Simpson's bill
By Jim Gerber


Rep. Mike Simpson

Jim Gerber Local columnist

Creating a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness area would swell the proportion of designated wilderness lands in Custer County. A national recreation area would be a better fit, writes Jim Gerber.

I am not sure demonstrating that environmentalists are willing to compromise on wilderness is a good reason to set an additional 294,000 acres aside for wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds area. There may be a better way to show reasonableness on the part of the environmental community -- one that doesn't create yet another single-interest set-aside for environmental groups who seem to be going through some kind of identity crisis now.

After all, there are two wilderness areas in Custer County already, accounting for nearly 21 percent of the land base there. Adding another 294,000 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds area boosts the total amount of wilderness in Custer County to 31 percent. That is a lot of land in one county to be locked up in a single use for one small group of people.

But, you argue, the county will receive public land that it can use as it sees fit to boost its economy. County officials could sell that land to private individuals and make a one-time profit for the citizens of Custer County, as well as increase private property value for increased taxes. Since the county is already 97 percent federally owned, that can only provide an increased tax base to reduce taxes or increase services. What is wrong with that?

That may be true, but land ownership and development also come with a price attached to them. A study by American Farmland Trust in 2001 found that residential development costs the counties an average of $1.15 in community services for every $1 in revenues created by that development. Farm and forest uses, on the other hand, cost only 35 cents for every $1 in revenues, similar to the cost of commercial use of the land (27 cents). If I understand Rep. Mike Simpson's bill correctly, the bill will transfer three parcels of federal land to Stanley and Custer County. One parcel is an 86-acre sagebrush tract on a bench above Stanley. The second is a 68-acre piece along Valley Creek. And the third is an 8.3-acre property southwest of Stanley. Some of all three properties would be sold for homes.

If the city of Stanley and Custer County sell the property for homes, the revenue from those sales will provide income for local constituents. However, if American Farmland Trust figures are correct, the cost of providing services to develop those properties will exceed the property tax value of the lands. There will likely be a net profit from selling the land and increasing the property tax base, minus the increased cost of providing services, but likely not as much as one might think.

An additional 2,000 acres of public land, with an estimated value of $9 million to $11 million, also could be given to central Idaho political entities. It is not clear what parcels and what government entities are involved but, again, the cost of providing services to these parcels could outstrip the property tax value of the land. There would likely be a one-time windfall from the sale of the land, but then the cost of providing services may equal or exceed the additional property tax base.

There are other goodies in Simpson's bill in the form of grants, grazing permit buyouts and funds to purchase conservation easements, but one is left wondering if it is all worth it. It may be, as some surmise, that Simpson's bill is an opportunity for environmental groups to step up to the plate and show their magnanimity by accepting 294,000 acres of wilderness instead of 350,000 acres, thereby proving they are capable of evolving beyond confrontation and therefore should be rewarded for their efforts.

I am not convinced, however, that showing environmentalists are more "flexible" and "community-based" because they agree to accept fewer acres of wilderness is what the Boulder-White Clouds bill should be all about. I believe the bill should be aimed at the widest possible set of interests in Custer County.

I suspect that "wider interest" is better served by providing the grants, buyout funds and money for conservation easements presently proposed in the bill, and then create a National Back Country Recreation Area in the Boulder-White Clouds that protects non-motorized recreation, motorized recreation, biking areas and horse riding areas, with no wilderness areas. Such a course of action would protect the Boulder-White Clouds but not create a third hands-off wilderness area for the gratification of a small group of people.

Gerber is a retired Forest Service staff member and is active in natural resources organizations. You can write to him at this newspaper, P.O. Box 1800, Idaho Falls, ID 83403.