Letters from the West

Texas billionaires should get credit for bringing out the masses for Idaho public lands

The organizers of the public lands rally at the Capitol last Saturday can thank brothers Farris and Dan Wilks for the large turnout in Boise, even in a rainstorm.

As many as 2,600 hunters, anglers, hikers, motorcyclists, campers, Indians, rednecks, hippies, posy-sniffers, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, moms, dads, babies, tree-huggers and salmon-kissers turned out Downtown. These folks traveled from as far as Sandpoint and Idaho Falls to send a message to legislators that they want to keep public lands public and want them accessible to the people who own them.

Farris and Dan Wilks are the Texas billionaires who purchased 172,000 acres of Idaho forest last year that had remained open for public access for more than 60 years. They sent their own message in 2016 by closing out hunters, loggers, snowmobilers and campers. I have tried to get the men to talk to me to tell their side of the story since the purchase. But even without talking to them, I can see the issue from their view.

It’s their land. It’s private property. They have the right to do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt their neighbors.

They come from Texas, where just 2 percent of the land in the state is public. When they saw the Idaho land they’d bought, they found that campers and hunters had left some big messes behind. The Wilkses thought the logging wasn’t very pretty and wanted to look closer before proceeding.

Later, they worked with Valley County to allow access to the snowmobile trail system after local officials showed how critical the access easements were to the local economy. Perhaps the Wilkses will consider other changes as they learn more about Idaho, the West and our customs.

Nevertheless, the Wilks brothers’ shutdown of their land showed Idahoans and other Westerners what it could look like if a state takes over federal land and is forced by economics to sell it. The Wilks’ support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the presidential campaign underscores those fears. He supports selling off federal lands and said in Idaho that the 2 percent of public lands in Texas was “2 percent too much.”

The public reaction has been frustrating for advocates of transferring federal lands to the states, like the Idaho Farm Bureau and Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale. Most of these advocates don’t want to sell off public lands that they, too, have loved and shared their whole lives.

They don’t buy the economic arguments that such land transfers will cost Idaho billions of dollars over time, or tens or hundreds of millions of dollars up front. They believe that the state would shift its management of these lands so dramatically that it could reverse the impacts of fire and save some of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent fighting the fires that have burned more than half the forests and much of the rangeland in Southern Idaho.

They don’t believe in climate change, or that it has affected the size and scope of fires as much or more than management. They have watched as federal land managers have been forced to cut back grazing or logging because of complaints from hikers or mountain bikers.

They hear complaints about the guard dogs that sheep ranchers now depend on to protect their bands from the wolves that were reintroduced over their objections. They believe the people who manage the 62 percent of Idaho that is now federal land ought to be accountable to Idaho voters.

When the Idaho Legislature looked intensively at the issue of public land transfer to states several years ago, the numbers didn’t add up, and the costs that could lead to land sales were apparent.

Bob Boeh, vice president of Idaho Forest Group, a company with at least five timber mills in Idaho, agrees with the Farm Bureau that the lack of more active management on Idaho forests is the major factor leading to the huge wildfires in the past 25 years or so. But he doesn’t want to wait until the end of a divisive battle over public lands to jump-start the restoration.

That’s why he has been a key player in the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, a coalition of collaborative groups from around Idaho that held its annual meeting in Boise this month — with the same people who were marching Saturday for public lands.

Boeh wants to force the few environmental groups who don’t participate in collaboration to have to put up their plan for management against the collaborative’s, instead of simply filing lawsuits. An arbitrator would pick between the plans under a pilot program he hopes Congress will support.

His company put up money to pay for state foresters to prepare timber sales on federal land as a part of the Department of Agriculture’s Good Neighbor Program, which has been embraced by Gov. Butch Otter. His environmental partners have shown good faith by supporting collaborative restoration plans in court against other environmental groups.

The challenge for the Farm Bureau and Idaho land transfer advocates is that they have not shown good faith that they support public access.

On Monday, the Idaho House voted 43-26-1 in favor of HCR 20, sponsored by Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. It would have the Idaho Department of Lands develop an annual report and map on accessibility of state lands. The agency manages 2.4 million acres of endowment land, which is largely supposed to be open to the public. But 30 percent of those lands, conservation groups say, may be inaccessible to the public for a variety of reasons.

Boyle said the language that went beyond the public land maps worried her and other lawmakers, and on Monday afternoon the House voted to reconsider the resolution and then defeated it, 46-23-1.

“They were chasing ghosts,” Erpelding said. “It would have increased transparency.”

Supporting such a minor act also would have showed that transfer supporters back public access for more than farmers, loggers and ranchers.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

‘Why Public Lands Matter’

The Andrus Center for Public Policy will host a conference March 28 titled “Why Public Lands Matter” at Boise State University. Information: https://sps.boisestate.edu/andruscenter/why-public-lands-matter/

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