Idaho group takes over some public land

 

For the first time in Idaho history, an environmental group has wrested control of state-owned rangeland from a rancher.

At a Jan. 28 auction in Idaho Falls, the Idaho Watersheds Project outbid Challis rancher Will Ingram for rights to lease a 640-acre tract of state land for the next 10 years.

"We've experienced great frustration with the slow pace of change in the management of our public lands, so we're going to manage them ourselves," says Jon Marvel, founder of the Idaho Watersheds Project.

Marvel's group, the only bidder, paid $30 for the parcel. Ingram, who paid the state $235 last year to lease the land, showed up at the auction but refused to bid. He says he will appeal the decision to the state land board.

According to Idaho's constitution, the state's 1.9 million acres of endowment lands must be managed in a way that will guarantee the "maximum long-term financial return" for the endowment's beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools. Historically, ranchers have been the only group willing to pay anything to lease the mostly arid tracts.

Marvel says his group targeted Ingram's parcel because it has a mile of stream running through it that is prime chinook spawning habitat. The group plans to fence off the area.

"We needed an initial test case," says Marvel, "and that land had a big advantage, from a public relations standpoint."

Marvel says his 150-member group is putting together an inventory of other state lands it hopes to acquire through the auction process this year. He says the group will focus on environmentally sensitive areas, but declined to comment on how much acreage it might bid for. Every year about one-tenth - 190,000 acres - of state endowment rangeland is eligible for auction.

Marvel says if his group fails to prevail at some of the auctions, it will at least demonstrate how valuable certain parcels of land are to some ranchers, and result in more money for state school coffers.

The Watershed Project's aggressive campaign could mark the beginning of a bitter era between Idaho ranchers and conservationists.

"I think this is extremely destructive and harmful to the developing relations between agricultural and environmental groups," says Bob Sears of the Idaho Cattle Association.

Despite protests from the livestock industry, there was no legal way to stop the auction. "It was bound to happen," says Jay Biladeau of the Idaho Department of Lands, citing his agency's obligation to lease endowment lands to the highest bidder.

But it didn't happen without a fight. The State Land Board voted to let the auction proceed despite protests from Idaho secretary of state and land board member Pete Cenarrusa, who is also a sheep producer. Cenarrusa, who cast the sole dissenting vote to postpone the auction, said the board's decision was "precedent setting" and could mean trouble for the future of ranching in the state.

Jeff Siddoway, a sheep producer in eastern Idaho's Fremont County, says the auction marks a change in the times.

"As society's priorities begin to change, the ranching industry is becoming more and more susceptible to people who disagree with the way ranchers have historically operated," he says. "I think (the Watershed Project) is going to create some hardship that we are going to have to learn to work around."

Marvel says he's not out to put any ranchers out of business, but he isn't too concerned about ruffling feathers within the livestock industry.

"I don't care what the public-lands ranchers think," he says. "I care what the general public sees out there."

Dan Egan is a staff reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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