By Eric Oliver, Conservation Fellow
If you’re like most public land lovers in Idaho, these days you’ve probably heard a thing or two about access. Access is easy enough to understand in theory: in order to enjoy our public lands, we need to have access to them. It’s usually something most of us take for granted. That is, until new challenges arise to make access to our public lands increasingly complicated. At Conservation Voters for Idaho, we work to understand threats to public access and what we can do to protect our right to get outdoors. Luckily, we’re not alone – Idaho stands poised to benefit from a number of creative solutions.
One of these solutions is a new bill taken up by the 2020 Idaho Legislature, the Public Access Protection Act (PAPA). PAPA will create a civil remedy for the illegal obstruction of public land, granting public property rights the same level of protection as private property rights.
Last week, the Idaho House – despite hearing from hundreds of Idahoans in support of the measure – rejected the motion to even give the bill a print hearing. Thankfully, the Idaho Senate has taken up the effort to protect our public land access and approved a print hearing. Now, we need to urge Senate leadership to schedule a committee hearing on the bill to ensure it moves to the Senate floor.
Our state’s enormous amount of public land allows Idahoans to enjoy a quality of life that is the envy of other states. But not all public lands are created equally. Idaho’s public lands are managed by land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. The state of Idaho is a player here, too. In addition to our 27 state parks, the Idaho Department of Lands manages 2.5 million acres of state trust land. While the land held by each of these agencies is indeed public, where exactly access falls on their priority list can differ dramatically.
Idaho’s checkerboard legacy of land ownership also leads to confusion. Imagine heading out to your favorite spot in a national forest. In most places, you’ll drive along a state highway for a while, and then turn off onto a dirt road. You’ll follow that road for a few miles or a few hours and finally get to that beautiful campsite or trout stream. But what if that road wasn’t there? That campsite could easily lie within the thousands of acres of public lands that are effectively “landlocked” in Idaho. That is, there is no road the public can use to access these lands without first crossing private property.
Or, let’s say that the dirt road is there, but the first few miles wind through someone’s private property. The landowners don’t mind, and for generations they’ve offered a friendly wave as folks pass by headed to the national forest. But when they sell that land and an out-of-state property company scoops it up, is it within the new owner’s rights to put a gate across the road? To answer that question, you’ll likely need a law degree and a lot of extra time. Who built the road way back when? Who’s been paying to maintain it – the county, the Forest Service, the property owners? Does a legal easement or right-of-way exist? For a family headed out to go camping, these aren’t easy questions to answer.
Imagine one final example: you make it down that road just before sunset to the spot your family’s visited for years. But when you get to that familiar pull off, something unfamiliar catches your eye: a “No Trespassing” sign. You’re positive it’s all public land, but with Idaho’s strict trespassing laws, are you 100% sure? Did somebody rope off this spot all for themselves, or is your memory just foggy? Public property rights are just as important as private property rights and both merit adequate protection.
Things are changing in Idaho. There are more people living in Idaho than ever before and they’re moving here in part because of our access to the great outdoors. What’s more, when rural, family-owned properties are put up for sale, they’re increasingly purchased not by neighbors or family members but by real estate development companies who never set foot in the state. Access is under increased scrutiny and public land users and private property owners alike can’t count on things to work the way they always have. The situations described above aren’t commonplace, but they do happen and they’re happening more often. That’s why CVI is excited to spread the word about some innovative solutions like the Public Access Protection Act that respect both public and private property rights.
Many landowners value public access on or through their land and have worked with conservation groups and local governments to create voluntary easements, asking only that public land users respect their land in return. Easements like these are supported by local land trusts throughout the state and benefit both public land users and property owners. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has created the innovative Access Yes! program that compensates landowners for allowing access to the public. At the federal level, the BLM is asking for input to help prioritize areas most in need of protected access. In addition, these agencies are working to put Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars towards securing public access.
CVI celebrates the many benefits public lands bring to our state: they form a key piece of both urban and rural economies, they’re home to some of the largest swaths of protected ecosystems in the country, and they’re essential to preserving Idaho’s outdoor way of life. Together with Idahoans of all stripes we care deeply about the outdoors and we support putting in the time to get access right.