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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho weighs private leases of public land

Constitution requires maximizing financial return

BOISE – State officials are debating if they should allow groups to lease public land in a way that could prevent public access.

A half-dozen times over the years, the Idaho Department of Lands has received applications for permission to lease state endowment land for an exclusive private hunting operation. Every time, the department has said no.

Now another application is on its way, from a group wanting to set up an exclusive pheasant hunting operation in eastern Idaho. State officials aren’t inclined to go along, but the continuing proposals have prompted review of just how Idaho handles recreation on state lands that Idahoans cherish.

“It probably goes without saying: Idahoans love the outdoors, they love their access,” said Emily Callihan, department spokeswoman. Seventy percent of Idaho’s endowment lands have public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, berry-picking and the like; even lands leased for grazing still are required to be open to the public.

But the Idaho Constitution requires the state Land Board, which consists of the state’s five top elected officials, to manage state endowment lands for “maximum long-term financial return,” with the money going to the endowment’s beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public school system. The state currently doesn’t charge a fee for folks to go berry-picking, hiking or sightseeing on state lands. And several neighboring states make up to $1 million a year from recreation on their endowment lands, either from user fees or leases with other state agencies, including parks and fish and game.

There’s a downside to directly charging user fees in Idaho, however. Under the state’s liability laws, it would be liable for claims from people recreating on the endowment lands if it directly charged a fee. A lease arrangement with another state agency could avoid that, however. Already, a small share – one dollar – of every off-highway vehicle license fee in Idaho goes to the state Department of Lands to offset the costs of managing recreational uses, including off-road riding.

Idaho has never issued exclusive leases for recreational operations on state endowment lands. Even its 20 active permits and leases to outfitters, while they are exclusive with regard to other outfitters, still let the public use the same areas.

State Land Board members are leery of the private pheasant-hunting plan. Secretary of State Lawerence Denney said he doesn’t want the state going there.

“We haven’t in the past,” he said. “But I think it’s something that we definitely need to look at, because our fiduciary responsibility is to get the highest return. There may be some ways we can get revenue for the state and still have it be totally open.”

Gov. Butch Otter said that although private hunting operations are “very problematic,” the concept can’t be ignored.

“Here’s the problem: If somebody offers us $100,000 for a section of land, we have to manage this for the maximum best financial gain that we have for the endowments.”

State Lands Department Director Tom Schultz said the latest proposal would affect 1,300 acres of state endowment land near Idaho Falls that has public use.

Otter last week asked Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to conduct a legal review of liability issues related to recreation on state endowment lands.

“We charge a fee for snowmobiles,” he noted, “and we’re not required to go out and say, ‘Hey, this is an avalanche area.’ ”

The board hasn’t taken any action on new policies on recreation, though its staff is reviewing the board’s options. Current policies include one adopted in 1973 calling for the board to “protect and preserve the present and future public interests for recreational, fishing, hunting or access values in state lands,” and requiring those interests to be protected in any sale or lease. The state’s current asset management plan for endowment lands calls for dispersed recreational uses to be accommodated, provided that they don’t impair financial returns from other uses like logging operations.

Current department rules limit camping on state lands to 10 days in most cases, and allow closures for safety reasons. Idaho has 2.4 million acres of state endowment lands, including big stretches of forest in North Idaho.

“I really think at this point that we’re better off the way we are,” said state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, a Land Board member. “I believe Idahoans enjoy their access to public lands, and it’s about what Idahoans are interested in, at the end of the day.”