Yesterday, the Bureau of Land Management announced the closure of the Skinny Dipper hot springs near Banks, Idaho. The reasons given include many related to public health and safety: broken glass and other trash, human waste, and illegal activities like drug use and underage drinking. The BLM claims the 2012 Springs Fire that consumed 6,000 acres was started by someone at the hot springs.
Let’s acknowledge the legitimate issues, but also ask whether the closure is the best possible outcome. The announced closure is for five years, based on the assertion that it would take that long to remove the trash and the plastic pipe and rehabilitate the site. It should be noted that the use of public lands for recreation always carries some risk of abuse - however small. Is the alternative ending multiple-use of public lands?
Based on the video that the BLM produced to justify the closure, it looks like a small crew could have the pipes and trash removed over a weekend. The BLM’s video referred to the “illegally built” pools, but such structures exist all over Idaho and, in fact, virtually every hot spring on public land has some sort of man-made addition.
Could this have ended differently? I would like to think so. For starters, five years is a long time. If the state of Idaho owned the land could it have been administered differently? Perhaps a seasonal closure and clean-up would be possible. Maybe a private group of volunteers committed to raising money for an out-house and trash receptacle would be invited to participate. Other options could be considered.
I bring this up as it is just one more instance where we see that the federal government is an inflexible landlord. This decision comes on the heels of a request by a man with a mule who sought to sell coffee in Boise’s foothills. The man was told by a U.S. Forest Service Ranger that it would take a minimum of three years for the permit to be considered. The BLM had a more terse response. Said Larry Ridenhour, a recreation planner for the BLM’s Boise District, “the BLM decided not to issue a vending permit to provide services along the Ridge to Rivers trail system because the activity is not in conformance with current BLM land-use planning guidance for the Boise Foothills.”
Federal officials bristle at the notion of transferring federal lands to the states, while continually telling Idahoans that they seek to be responsive to local input. Unfortunately, recent evidence in decisions large and small points to a different reality – officious sounding bureaucrats avoiding reasonable requests to allow true multiple use of our public lands.