State Politics

Idaho lawmakers vote to kill bill allowing civil lawsuits over access to public land

Texas billionaires put gates on portion of Boise Ridge Road

A popular road in the Boise Foothills used by hunters and other recreationists has been closed to the public as the billionaire Wilks brothers continue to exert their private-property rights in Idaho.
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A popular road in the Boise Foothills used by hunters and other recreationists has been closed to the public as the billionaire Wilks brothers continue to exert their private-property rights in Idaho.

Idaho lawmakers on Monday voted to effectively kill a bill that would’ve given the public the ability to file civil lawsuits against those who block access to public land.

In a meeting of the Senate Resources and Environment committee, a majority of senators voted to hold Senate Bill 1089, rather than send it to the Fourteenth Order of Business to be amended. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, was drafted by the Idaho Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen and conservation group.

It would have altered an existing Idaho code to offer what IWF executive director Brian Brooks called “a civil remedy” to public land access issues.

Though the bill had wide support from recreationist and sportsmen’s groups, several organizations testified in opposition to it on Monday. Representatives from the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and Idaho Cattle Association expressed concerns that the bill’s language — undefined terms such as “willful” and “flagrant” — would allow “perpetual litigation against landowners across the state.”

A representative for DF Development, a company owned by Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, also spoke against the bill.

“My clients want you to know the real facts before you decide,” Boise attorney Gary Allen said in written testimony provided to the Statesman. “More importantly, Boise Ridge Road demonstrates how complicated public access issues can be, and why this bill is the wrong answer to address them.”

Allen’s testimony, which was cut short as the hearing ran over time, referred to a popular road that Brooks also brought up to illustrate the issue. Brooks said deeds show the road, which runs through Wilks land and was gated last year, belongs to the public. DF Development disagrees.

“Cooperation is going to give you a lot more access than litigation,” Allen said.

One member of the committee said he worried the bill would allow the public to bring suits against him.

“I think it opens the door for myself and many others in rural Idaho to be subjected to civil lawsuits ... some of them legitimate and some just harassment,” said Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Twin Falls.

Brackett said he and other private landowners may have fences that don’t follow property lines to a GPS-specific degree.

The Idaho Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion stating that the bill “does not appear to violate any provisions in the Idaho Constitution addressing private property rights.”

After the meeting, Brooks said he felt several of the senators who voted to hold the bill created a double standard between public landowners and private landowners. Several of the lawmakers who expressed concern over the language of the bill voted in favor of last year’s trespass law, which uses similar language.

“All the reasons they used to shoot down the bill were fine for their trespass bill,” Brooks said. “Those legislators are from rural counties. They know who butters their bread.”

Brooks said he was surprised by Allen’s presence, as the Wilks brothers do not often respond to requests for comment.

“The Wilks brothers are easy bogeymen,” Brooks said. “It’s easy to vilify them. But they airdrop in and clearly know legislators. They lift a finger and kill a bill supported by a lot of Idahoans.”

About 25,000 Idahoans sent letters to their legislators in support of Senate Bill 1089 through an online form provided by Idaho Wildlife Federation and its partners, Brooks said.

Brooks said he hopes to continue working to improve the bill, addressing critics’ concerns over “sweeping” language and “technical difficulties.”

“I think the public is going to realize ... we need to have the same deference for public property rights (as we do for private property),” Brooks said. “This is such a bottom-tier issue (to legislators) that they’d rather kill it than fix it.”

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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.