State land lease in Idaho goes to the low bidder

 

In an abrupt turnaround, the Idaho Land Board took away a lease for state grazing land won by an environmentalist, then gave it back to the rancher who has used it for 20 years.

At a Jan. 28 auction, Jon Marvel, founder of Idaho Watersheds Project, outbid Challis ranchers Will and Vangie Ingram for rights to lease the 640-acre tract for 10 years (HCN, 2/7/94). On Feb. 8, the land board voted 4-1 to nullify the auction and restore the lease to the Ingrams.

Ranchers, who viewed Marvel's action as a direct threat to public lands grazing in Idaho, hailed the decision. But Marvel, who planned to fence off a creek on the tract to protect salmon habitat, was disappointed. "I think the land board violated the state Constitution today ... and the entrenched power of the livestock industry prevailed," he said.

Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus cast the sole vote in favor of Marvel's plan. He told Associated Press he stood alone because "I'm the only one who's not on the ballot next year." Idaho Attorney General Larry Echohawk, State Auditor J.D. Williams and State Schools Superintendent Jerry Evans said they switched their votes after becoming convinced that Marvel's plan would hurt management of the entire area, including surrounding federal lands.

Williams said a change in the position of the Bureau of Land Management swayed him. After a phone conversation with the Ingrams, Challis Area Manager Mark Johnson wrote them a letter the day before the vote, saying the agency now agreed that Marvel's plan would hurt the Herd Creek Allotment. Earlier, Johnson had told Marvel his plan posed no threat.

On the day of the vote, the Ingrams showed the board how a fence would cut off their 625 head of cattle from water after they have climbed over a high pass and gone without water for five miles.

"Those cattle are going to come off the hill dry, and when they come down to the water and that fence, they're either going to break it down or trail up and down the fence and harm state land," said long-time sheepman and Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, who sits on the board.

Marvel argued that the Ingrams could easily trail the livestock down a dirt road next to the creek and then water the animals at that point. He said he hasn't decided whether to challenge the Land Board's decision in court.

Steve Stuebner and Dan Egan contributed to this report.

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