The Idaho Department of Lands has been working for more than two years on new rules for how cattle farmers, conservation groups, and other groups can bid on leases for state lands amid court battles on the issue.
The lands department issues leases on 1.8 million acres of grazing land in Idaho. Money from those leases goes to a fund for public schools. During the past few years, some conservationists have issued higher bids than ranchers, but not always won the leases. Both the House and Senate resource committees approved the new rules with some changes. Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, the chair of the Senate panel, said the course of action had been decided in advance.
The Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) recommended changes to the lands department’s new rules. ICA president Carl Ellsworth said one of the group’s revisions was to keep the old standard of limiting applicants for grazing or crop leases to only those who intend to do those activities. “We’d like to see this remain in the rule,” he said. “This will help protect against outside interests from obtaining grazing leases with the sole intent of removing livestock from grazing lands.” Ellsworth and other ICA members or supporters were the only people to testify at a hearing on the grazing rules Wednesday. There had been several open meetings and chances for public comment before the committee meetings.
Conservationists are unhappy with the ICA’s input. “The Legislature’s not interested in a public discussion about the benefits for public schools from these lands,” said Jon Marvel of Hailey, the founder of the Western Watersheds Project. “It’s much more interested in the benefits to ranchers.” Marvel has been bidding on public land leases since 1993. He said no one spoke against the ICA recommendations because lawmakers had already made their decision. “This was sealed and delivered long before the committees met.”
Lands director George Bacon said the changes recommended by the ICA are workable. “It’s all stuff we can live with,” he said. Bacon also said that conservationists should be able to win bids for leases despite the recommendations from the ICA. “I don’t think it’s any harder than it was. Conservation groups have been bidding on the grazing leases for the last 30 years. They’ve been coming in and saying they were leasing for grazing, and then they don’t graze.”