Although my freezer brims with elk and deer, I feel that the 2015 hunting season may ultimately be remembered as a year of immense failure. Sportsmen need to take notice that for the past two years around the West, state legislatures and ideologically driven politicians are pushing legislation to seize public lands (BLM and national forest) under the guise that the state would better manage the land.
On the surface this may sound reasonable, but as you dig further, it becomes abundantly clear that a state takeover of public lands would negatively impact the vast majority of hunters, and there are clear examples and definitive statistics to back this up.
Surprisingly, most hunters do not realize that state lands are not public lands. The lands are owned by the state and managed by a state land board. It is true that most state lands in Idaho are currently open for public access (70 percent), but access is not guaranteed and the land board can block access for a multitude of reasons. In most cases, state constitutions clearly declare that state lands must be managed for the highest financial benefit of the state. This means the long-term health of the habitat and wildlife is a low priority for state lands, only considered after the financial priorities. So, let’s look at the options to generate revenue with state lands and the likely effects on the average hunter.
▪ Mining and other forms of energy development: This choice creates loss of access and damage to wildlife habitat. The land board often prohibits public access due to safety issues and possible disruption to business operations. No access clearly means no hunting and roughly 700,000 acres of state land in Idaho are already currently closed to public access. Even if access is allowed or eventually restored, the wildlife habitat will have been degraded by roads, fences, structures and pollutants.
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▪ Leasing the land to private users: State lands have long been leased for livestock grazing and the land board also receives lease proposals for recreational purposes. Just recently, a group in southeast Idaho requested a lease in order to establish a bird hunting preserve that prohibits public access. Historically, the land board has denied such proposals. However, that could change with one vote. One member of the board, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, said of the situation, “We haven’t in the past, but I think it’s something that we definitely need to look at, because our fiduciary responsibility is to get the highest return.”
▪ Selling the land to private interests: Clearly the worst outcome for hunters would be if Idaho simply sold the state lands to private owners, creating a permanent loss of access. For those who may think that I am exaggerating the likelihood of this situation, please consider these facts: Idaho has already sold over 1.5 million acres of the state land which it was originally granted, which amounts to over 30 percent of all state lands it has owned. In Nevada, the example is even more alarming. The state of Nevada has sold 2.7 million acres (99.98 percent) of its state land had and now retains only a paltry 3,000 acres of its original school trust lands.
I will be the first to say that current public land management can be improved. However, that is no reason to allow public lands to be seized and given to states with a history of selling them or leasing them and likely reducing sportsman access. If you hunt, fish or recreate on public lands, I urge you to do your part and make your voice heard.
John Kuntz is a native of Montana who now lives in Boise and works as a self-employed corporate event coordinator and spends his free time hunting, biking, backpacking and volunteering for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.