Private property, no trespassing

BOISE — For the second time in a week, Idaho lawmakers considered introducing legislation that aimed to improve access to public land. For the first time, they voted to move it forward.

The Senate Resources and Environment Committee on Monday voted to print a bill that would mean fines for people who knowingly block public land access.

Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, sponsored the legislation Monday. Last Wednesday, the House Resources and Conservation committee swiftly voted down printing a comparable bill, which was sponsored by Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise.

Martin told the Senate committee that public land is an incredibly popular issue — he said when sharing posts on social media about public land access, he sees much more engagement than he does for posts about his work in the Senate or about his grandchildren.

If a person knowingly blocks access to public land, the first violation is a warning. A second violation in two years warrants an infraction and $200 fine, while a third violation would be a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine. No jail time is associated with the bill.

The proposal also would allow individuals to file a civil suit if they can show proof of damages.

“Law enforcement doesn’t have the resources to address these disputes,” Martin told the committee.

It’s not the first time Martin has raised the issue with the Resources and Environment Committee. During the 2019 session, he sponsored a more broad version of the bill, which was drafted by the Idaho Wildlife Federation, a local conservation nonprofit. The 2019 bill got some traction in the Senate committee, though it eventually died there.

At the time, some legislators echoed concerns from the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, Idaho Cattle Association and representatives for DF Development, a company owned by Texas billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks, that the bill would open landowners up to constant litigation.

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, and Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, raised the same issues on Monday. Brackett said it’s a serious endeavor for landowners to try to match longtime fencing with updated GPS property boundaries.

“Many fence lines are not on property lines,” Brackett said. “They weren’t when they were put in 100 years ago, and they’re still not. … I don’t know where my fence lines are, many of them.”

In an interview following the committee hearing, Martin told the Statesman he’s sensitive to the legislators’ concerns.

“For lots of Idahoans, access to public land is extremely important,” Martin said. “Now the balance is the agricultural industry has some legitimate concerns that their private property (won’t be) illegitimately crossed. Sen. Brackett did a good job of saying, ‘Hey, I’m concerned.’ ”

Public land access remains an important issue for Idahoans

Though Martin’s district is a suburban one, he said his constituents are proponents of public land access. The senator said it’s perhaps one of the top issues in his district behind education and property taxes.

Idaho Wildlife Federation Executive Director Brian Brooks said it’s heartening to have the senator’s support following the bill’s defeat in the House. Last week, Brooks told the Statesman he didn’t think public land access would be addressed in the 2020 session. He was taken by surprise when Martin expressed interest in reviving the legislation.

“Somebody is listening,” Brooks said in a phone interview Monday. “Sen. Martin said, ‘This is a really good bill.’ … I’m relieved that there’s bipartisan support for it.”

Martin cited Boise Ridge Road as an example of a situation he hopes the legislation can prevent. In 2018, the Wilks brothers gated the popular road in the Boise Foothills because it crosses land owned by their DF Development company. Critics said the road is a public right-of-way with a longstanding easement.

“There is an honest dispute in respect to that road, whether it’s public or private,” Martin said, noting that the gate is currently open.

Though the Wilks have drawn much of the public ire over access, a 2019 study found millions of acres of public land inaccessible. Martin said the problem is widespread across Idaho.

He hopes the legislation could serve as a catalyst for landowners to keep access available.

“The main thing is it does set up an avenue for dispute through the court system,” Martin said.

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