State Politics

When public lands are blocked, Idahoans have no recourse. This bill seeks to change that.

Idaho legislators on Monday voted to introduce a bill that would give the public the ability to file suit against someone who bars access to public land.

The Senate Resources and Environment Committee voted unanimously to move Senate bill 1089 forward. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise. On Wednesday morning, it wasn’t immediately clear when the next action on the bill would take place.

The Idaho Wildlife Federation, a local conservation group, has been working on the legislation for two years, according to executive director Brian Brooks. The proposed legislation would alter an existing Idaho code to offer what Brooks calls “a civil remedy” to public land access issues.

“We wondered, ‘Why doesn’t the public have any legal recourse to this?’ ” Brooks said.

Idaho law allows county governments to bring criminal charges against individuals who block off public lands, but Brooks said restrictions on resources and finances often keep counties from pursuing those cases. In the meantime, Brooks said his agency has received more and more complaints about access to public roads, boat ramps, trails or swaths of land that belong to the public.

The code that the legislation would alter already lays out civil recourse for “interference with hunting, fishing, trapping or wildlife control” unrelated to land access. The new bill would amend the code to include individuals who indicate any public property is privately owned or not open to public use, as well as individuals who “obstruct, block, or otherwise interfere with a person’s attempt to lawfully ... use” public property. The bill also clarifies the definition of public land.

In some cases, Brooks said, hunters or other recreationists will unlawfully post “No Trespassing” signs on public properties. In other cases, private landowners will illegally stymie access to public roads or waterways that traverse their property.

“People are getting away with indicating that (areas are) private and getting away with exclusively using land that belongs to the public,” Brooks said.

Perhaps the most prominent such case is on Boise Ridge Road, otherwise known as Forest Service road 374, which was gated by brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, the Texas billionaires who’ve drawn ire in recent years after buying Idaho properties that had historically been open to the public.

“Rural counties ... have priorities other than just opening a gate,” Brooks said. “So enforcement is falling through the cracks.”

Though the existing code applies to interference with hunting, fishing and trapping, lawyers who helped draft the bill said the Wildlife Federation’s draft extends it to all public lands users, including hikers.

Brooks told the Statesman the bill certainly has some hurdles to clear in the Legislature.

“We’re running into roadblocks at the statehouse,” Brooks said, adding that some legislators have raised concerns about the potential for frivolous lawsuits.

Still, he said, the proposal has wide support from Idaho’s hunting and outdoor recreation communities.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.