BY RICK JUST
(This guest opinion first appeared in the Idaho Statesman on August 15, 2021)
It’s good news that the Idaho Land Board has rejected the proposal to privatize vast swaths of public land around Payette Lake. However, this proposal will be back, modified a bit. Similar proposals will follow all around the state as long as the Land Board has no choice but to consider financial return over every other consideration on endowment fund land. The land in question is part of 2.4 million acres of endowment lands the state of Idaho owns. They came to Idaho from the federal government at the time of statehood. According to Article IX of Idaho’s constitution, those lands are to be managed “…in such manner as will secure the maximum long-term financial return…”. Selling lands at market value or trading them for lands of equal or better market value can fulfill that constitutional mandate. What the framers of Idaho’s constitution did not foresee was that one day the highest and best use of such lands might not always be an economic use. Some of those lands, such as much of the property under consideration around McCall, are of high value for public recreation and for protection of the watershed and other natural resources. The state of Idaho should undertake a study of endowment fund holdings to identify prime public recreation property and property of great value for ecosystem protection in its natural state. Once identified, the Idaho Legislature could appropriate funds over several years to purchase those properties at market value to be managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation or the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. It may seem counterintuitive for the state of Idaho to purchase property from itself. But this is one way to protect the economic legacy of endowment fund land while moving the property under an agency better designed to manage it for recreational or conservation values. There is precedent for this. A few years ago, endowment land on the peninsula on Payette Lake was purchased by a legislative appropriation and given to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to manage. That land now includes a campground, several rental cabins, and the headquarters building of Ponderosa State Park. Had this property been sold at market value to a private concern, it would likely be the site of multimillion-dollar homes and private docks on Payette Lake. While that outcome would please a few people, the foresight of legislators has made this property much more accessible for the enjoyment of Idaho’s citizens. A thoughtful, deliberate approach to endowment land opportunities would be much better for Idahoans than having the Land Board consider the disposition of public land one billionaire at a time.
Rick Just worked for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation for 30 years, was the coordinator of the Idaho Recreation and Tourism Initiative, and a member of the Boise District Bureau of Land Management Resources Advisory Council. Just also served as president of the National Society of Recreation Professionals.