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Know the West

Land Board bias questioned

  Idaho environmentalists secured their first court victory in the ongoing struggle over who gets to lease the state's school endowment lands.

Judge Duff McKee of the Ada County District Court ruled in December that the State Land Board broke its rules when it combined two grazing leases into one parcel, then awarded the package to a livestock company. By combining the leases, the Land Board thwarted efforts by the Committee for Idaho's High Desert to obtain the parcels for conservation purposes, and it gave Simplot Livestock Co. two leases for the price of one, said Laird Lucas, the committee's attorney.

"This is an important decision, because it tells the Land Board that it ... cannot favor the livestock industry," said Lucas. The State Land Board must now repeat the application process for the leases in Owyhee County.

The same week, the Land Board barred conservationist Jon Marvel from bidding against Simplot for other leases in Owyhee County. The board claimed that Marvel, who wants to improve riparian areas, would be taking valuable water sources away from other livestock operations. Marvel said he never intended to fence off the waterways, but instead would plant larkspur, a native plant poisonous to livestock, as an inducement for ranchers to keep their cattle from the area.

Last month, Marvel filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the 1995 state law that ousted him from the auction. The law allows Idaho's Land Board to determine who is a "qualified bidder" for grazing leases.

*Jenny Emery