The Idaho Fish and Game Commission is considering paying its sister agency, the Department of Lands, to retain public recreation access to more than 2.3 million acres of state endowment land.
The proposal, in the form of an annual lease, was unveiled Tuesday when the Idaho Land Board approved its end of the deal, and also adopted a recreation policy that allows continued public access to the land it manages, but also directs the Department of Lands to seek compensation for such recreation.
Upon statehood, the federal government granted Idaho millions of acres of land to be managed for the long-term benefit of certain endowments, including those that help fund public schools, universities, prisons and state hospitals. That is generally done through timber sales and grazing leases.
The endowment lands, which total more than 2.4 million acres, traditionally have been open to recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and camping – though their connection to endowment beneficiaries puts them in a class of property that is only quasi-public.
For example, the land board’s requirement to maximize revenue from the lands sets them apart from federal public land such as those managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. It allows the land board to lease the land for uses not compatible with recreation or to enter into exclusive leases that would lock the general public out.
Ed Schriever, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said if approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, the lease would help ensure endowment lands continue to be available for hunting, fishing, trapping and other outdoor recreation. It would not, however, prevent others from trying to outbid the department for some of the land.
“We weren’t paying for access (to endowment land) in the past, and if this is put in place we will be,” Schriever said. “It’s not to say that endowment lands are not susceptible to highest-bid exclusive recreation lease offers. What the draft agreement would do is provide the land board with a model that different proposals would be gauged against to see which one is better for endowment beneficiaries. We believe this is a fairly strong agreement for 2.3 million acres of ground that is distributed widely across the state.”
Under the agreement that Fish and Game commissioners are slated to consider Thursday at their meeting in Boise, the department would pay the state 25 cents per acre for access. That comes out to about $580,000 a year. However, as part of the proposed lease, Fish and Game would provide periodic law enforcement services on endowment land and enforce any rules and regulations implemented by the Department of Lands. To compensate for that service, an amount equal to the salaries, benefits and operating expenses of two senior conservation officers would be subtracted from the annual payment, bringing the total down to about $367,000 a year.
The Fish and Game Commission would have the ability to renegotiate the lease price or to cancel it if the land board opted to reduce the acres available for public recreation. Schriever said that provision, plus the law enforcement piece, should make the Land Board leery of accepting exclusive recreation lease offers from other entities.
The agreement is open-ended but would be reviewed every five years. The price per acre would rise and fall based on the consumer price index, but it would not exceed more than a 3 percent change annually. Schriever said the department could use a mix of revenue to pay for the lease, but it is likely to be dominated by money from an access fund established last year in a bill that raised the cost of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses – and through funds the department receives from federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition. He said no current programs would be reduced to fund the lease.
Dan Blanco, the Fish and Game Commissioner representing the Clearwater Region, said he had initial reservations about paying for access that was previously free. He also felt Idaho’s constitutional amendment protecting the right to hunt, fish and trap should preclude the state from charging access to endowment lands.
However, he was convinced by representatives of the Idaho Attorney General’s Office that his right to hunt, fish and trap argument “doesn’t hold water.”
Blanco also learned that hunters and anglers in some other Western states have been locked out of some of their endowment land after it was leased by people with deep pockets.
“So what we are trying to do with this deal is to get ahead of the game and allow sportsmen to continue to enjoy the access they have for (more than 100 years) and try to keep some of the moneyed interests from getting access and locking the sportsmen out.”
Blanco also said when the hunting and fishing fee increase was approved with the new access fund, he expected that money to be used to open up new ground.
“I’m sure people will see this as one step forward and one step back. People are paying more (for licenses) and not getting the kind of additional access they envisioned, but at the same time when looking at access issues for hunting, hanging onto what you’ve got is an important part of the strategy.”
Groups representing hunters and anglers signaled approval of the proposal, though with some reservations. Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said the public should be given more time to learn about and comment on the proposal. The commission isn’t slated to have a public comment session at its meeting Thursday.
In addition, he said, the lease would benefit more than just hunters, anglers and trappers. People who camp, hike and pick berries on endowment lands would be getting a free ride, he said. Even so, he backs the plan.
“Overall I think it’s a good proposal. The threat of losing access to endowment land is real, and the cost for sportsmen to retain that access is minimal.”
Michael Gibson, Idaho Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, also said he’d like the new Fish and Game revenue to pay for new access and for other people who use state land to pitch in for the cost of securing access. He added the proposal highlights how valuable federal land is to hunters and anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts.
“We are pretty much guaranteed to have access to federal public land. We are not trying to figure out a way to protect access. State lands are for the endowment, and they have to consider all income on those lands.”
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