When it comes to Idaho’s public lands, there is one clear consensus: Idahoans care about access.
The liberty to walk, drive, ride, hunt, fish, pick flowers, gather mushrooms, collect berries or simply view the scenery and breathe the air is at the heart of our idea of freedom. We may argue over how we access those lands — on foot, on horseback, via four-wheeler, mountain bike or automobile — but we agree that the more than 34 million acres of public land in Idaho should be open to the public.
Even among the minority of Idahoans who believe the federal public lands should be turned over to the state, most people vehemently protest the idea that such a radical move should force the widespread sale of these lands. They know that access to these lands is deeply rooted in our DNA, and even the most libertarian among us would think twice before allowing people to put no-trespassing signs on their favorite place.
Until the current debate over federal land transfer began, most people assumed the state’s 2.4 million acres of endowment lands were public lands with the same access that federal land offers. But there is a difference. These state lands, including the 1 million acres managed for timber, are open to the public unless that access conflicts with the agency’s primary mission to maximize the long-term return for the schools and other state beneficiaries.
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So 70 percent of these lands are open to the public, but 30 percent — mostly land-locked within private property — are closed. The Land Board — five statewide elected officials, chaired by Gov. Butch Otter, who oversee management of these lands — has no formal recreation policy.
Tom Schultz, director of the Department of Lands, wants to change that. He has directed his staff to prepare policy alternatives for the Land Board to consider in the near future.
His problem is that the default current policy, which allows the public to access their lands for free, likely is unsustainable. Plus, the Idaho Constitution mandates that the Land Board get maximum return it can off these lands over the long term for state schools, universities and other programs.
So if someone comes in and wants to lease 10,000 acres to be used exclusively for a private hunting preserve and is willing to pay a lot for it, the board has to listen. It can turn down the proposal — and has in the past, such as when a rancher proposed using state land for a canned elk hunt business. But it puts the board in a position where it has to make awkward, unpopular decisions or face court challenges.
Other Western states have developed different programs. Colorado’s state lands are closed unless leased for recreation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife leases some lands for its State Trust Land Public Access Program.
Utah is open, through a hunter-access program paid through an agreement with its wildlife agency and a $1.50 surcharge on off-road-vehicle registrations. Montana has a state land recreation use license that ranges from $5 to $20. Montana hunters and anglers also pay a $2 surcharge on licenses for access.
The most natural scheme in Idaho would be for the Land Board to have the Department of Fish and Game lease state lands for its Access Yes program, which provides public access. That would guarantee continued access for hunting and fishing while providing the revenue that state lands need to generate.
But that would take a lot more money than Fish and Game has now. The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation also could get involved, but it also would need more money to pay for access.
As much as Idahoans cherish their public lands, many hate the idea of user fees. I’m not one of them. I don’t see a problem with asking users to help pay for being able to pursue their passions. And it would give recreationists a voice and leverage, the way licenses give hunters and anglers big clout in Fish and Game decisions.
Michael Gibson, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, wouldn’t comment on user fees for state lands. “We fully support greater access for sportsmen in the state,” he said. “We would support any effort to increase and protect access for sportsmen.”
Paying for access gives the public more of a case to demand services parking lots, trail heads, boat landings and bathrooms. Being paying customers makes them at least as important as the timber companies, ranchers, oil drillers and miners who lease state lands now.
The Land Board will have the final say on whether to approve a recreation policy, and what form that might take. Schultz, who came to Idaho from Montana, likes that state’s approach. But he said Idaho has to craft a program that uniquely fits our needs.
“What I’m trying to do is legitimize a role for recreation on state lands,” Schultz said. “I think there’s a win-win for sportsmen and for the schools if we do it right.”