By Matt Anderson | Special to Idaho Freedom Foundation
Outdoor recreational activities -- hiking, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, fishing -- are a way of life for many Idahoans. However, as the state population has increased, a decline in access to federally-managed public lands has occurred, especially for recreational purposes. This is true throughout the West.
In response to this and other concerns, Idaho and several other Western states have considered legislative resolutions calling on the federal government to transfer much of its land holdings to state ownership. State-managed lands play a pivotal role in providing recreational access. This role would expand significantly if federal lands were transferred to state control.
The Property and Environmental Research Center’s report, “Access Divided: State and Federal Recreational Management in the West,” offers insights about how federal and state land agencies respond to recreational-access demands. Further, “Access Divided” concludes, though a range of recreational opportunities are available on federal lands, federal agencies often have no clear method for the prioritization of competing uses.
Most federal lands are open for multiple recreation uses, from hiking to skiing, hunting to horseback riding -- often all at once, in the same location. This makes little sense. Horses are frightened when dirt bikes speed past; mountain bikers can overrun hikers; snowmobiles frustrate cross-country skiers who seek a quiet experience.
Federal agencies can address conflicting demands through multi-year travel and management plans, which determine when and where specific activities are allowed. However, less than half of all national forests have completed travel plans. And, the majority of management plans are outdated.
Bureaucratic processes and litigation often delay, or prevent, travel and management plan development. For example, in eastern Idaho’s Bitterroot National Forest inefficient federal procedures and litigation concerns delayed the adoption of a travel plan for motorized and non-motorized users: for nearly six years. Clearly, no one wins in such situations.
Conversely, Idaho’s state trust lands and state parks provide an array of recreational opportunities. The Idaho Department of Lands has found innovative ways to accommodate recreational demands while simultaneously meeting its fiduciary responsibility on state trust lands.
Over 70 percent of Idaho’s trust lands are open to public recreation (the remaining 30 percent are closed primarily because they are land-locked within private property). These trust lands are largely kept accessible to the public through contracts with other state agencies. For example, the Idaho Department of Lands receives $1 from the registration of each off-highway vehicle to manage recreation. This funding goes to new signage, trailhead information, parking, trail inventories, rehabilitation of damaged areas and more. This model shows that financial responsibility and recreation can go hand in hand.
Idaho’s state parks are popular. They receive more recreation visits per acre than any federal agency park, including the National Park Service. In 2014, Idaho’s state parks had 82 visitors per acre compared to an average of five in all Western national parks. This popularity is largely due to the variety and quality of the recreational opportunities Idaho state parks allow. Moreover, Gem State state parks do a far better job than federal agencies in terms of restricting specific uses to specific areas. This helps alleviate the competing-demand problem that is prevalent on federally managed lands.
Though the role of federal agencies in supplying recreational opportunities in the West is widely known, Idaho’s state-owned lands also play an important role, which is not widely recognized. That should change: Idaho is responsive to recreational demands and able to provide the types of recreational activities people desire, both on its trust lands and in its state parks.
Matt Anderson serves as the policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a policy initiative of the Utah-based Sutherland Institute. In the policy-making process, Matt has worked with Utah Congressman Rob Bishop and the nonprofit group Trout Unlimited. In his spare time Matt enjoys fly-fishing and other outdoor activities.