Lawsuit gives environmental groups right to bid on state lands

Nov 30, 2009

Ranchers leasing grazing land from the state of Idaho may soon face stiffer competition for those leases as a result of major rule changes proposed by the Idaho Land Board. Under the proposed changes, conservation will be added as an acceptable use of lease lands, a move many fear will pave the way for environmental groups to irrevocably disrupt grazing activities on these lands.

With the granting of statehood in 1890, Idaho was given roughly 3.5 million acres of endowment land for the support of state institutions. Unlike federal lands, endowment lands are not managed for the good of the general public. Instead, the Idaho constitution states that these lands are to be managed in order to provide the “maximum financial return possible for the beneficiaries.” The primary beneficiary, in this case, is Idaho’s public school system, which receives the bulk of the revenue from these lands. The State Land Board, which is comprised of the governor, attorney general, and other state officials, is the entity charged with managing Idaho’s state owned endowment lands. Though the largest portion of revenue from these lands is a result of timber and mineral resources, the state also manages about 1,200 grazing leases on roughly 2 million acres. Each lease is granted for a period of 10 years. At the end of each 10-year cycle, if more than one party is interested in the lease, it is made available at auction and is usually awarded to the highest bidder. Bidders must also provide a use plan that addresses criteria set by the Land Board. In addition, the Land Board sets the allowable number of available animal unit months for a specific allotment. Under the proposed changes, nonuse, or conservation, must now be considered on equal footing with grazing as a viable use of the land.

The proposed rule changes are largely the result of a lawsuit filed in 2006 by Gor don Younger’s Lazy Y Ranch Ltd. based in Washington state. In late 2005, Younger was the high bidder on six Idaho grazing allotments. His use proposal stated that he planned to manage the lands to restore what he called “their degraded streams and wildlife habitats.” However, several of the leases auctioned off were isolated islands, interspersed among other allotments leased by different ranches. Considering the scattered nature of the leases, the Idaho Land Board determined that the extra administrative and monitoring costs associated with allowing a new party into the area exceeded the extra revenue offered by Lazy Y. As a result, they awarded the leases to the second highest bidders, the ranchers who had originally held them. Following this decision, Younger filed a discrimination suit in federal district court, claiming that he had been unfairly excluded based on his ties to conservation groups. Ultimately, the courts found in favor of the Lazy Y, and the Idaho Land Board recently agreed to pay Younger $50,000, and also committed to revising its rules to allow conservation groups to bid on state leases.

Laird Lucas, attorney for the Lazy Y and executive director of the non-profit group of environmental lawyers known as Advocates of the West, touts the decision as a victory for conservation groups, many of whom feel they have been unfairly denied leases in the past. “If someone is willing to put up money for conservation on state lands, we want them to be treated fairly,” Lucas told the Associated Press. “This is the first time we’ve achieved reform in how state lands are managed.”

Though the final commitment to make the changes is recent, plans and proposals to address the claims, and avoid further litigation, were in the beginning stages as early as 2007. Throughout the process, ranchers have been quick to point out the various pitfalls and conflicts that may arise from allowing non-use as an acceptable alternative to grazing on lease lands. During an open comment session held in March of this year, concerns expressed by ranchers ranged from fear of increased fire danger to the threat of conservation groups gaining control of entire regions by ‘cherry picking’ key areas within larger allotments. Concern was also expressed that improvements, some of which had taken ranchers decades to construct, would be allowed to deteriorate under the stewardship of environmental groups.

It has also been pointed out that the decision to change the rules may put many ranchers out of business, resulting in a net loss to the state lands system and, ultimately, Idaho’s public schools. “(The changes) could have substantial long term impacts on the schools as well as the communities,” says Tom McDonnell, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association. “Many ranches are dependent on these lands, and the leases have been a stable source of income for the state for years and years.” He adds, “Now, we have (conservation groups) coming in, and their whole purpose is to remove cattle; they could give a hoot about revenues to the state and school districts.” McDonnell also worries that the proposed changes may be a knee jerk reaction to avoid further lawsuits, rather than a decision based on the best interests of the state. “The attorney general has let us know that they are doing this partially out of fear of litigation,” says McDonnell. “I think that this fear of litigation is pushing us into some decisions that may not be the best for the long term.”

The final proposed rule changes have been submitted to the Idaho State Legislature where they await review during the 2010 legislative session. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent