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For all the hubbub over who controls and manages public land in Idaho – the federal government, the state, whoever – it’s the access to that land that matters most for Idahoans at the end of the day.

The freedom to enjoy public lands is at the heart of the Western ethos.

That’s why it’s so important state leaders find a solution soon to keep public endowment lands out of the hands of wealthy hunting companies and others who are seeking to gobble up public land for corporate gain.

Several times in the past few years, private hunting companies have approached the Idaho Department of Lands about leasing space to fence off for private hunts. Most recently, a hunting company called Blixt proposed closing off endowment lands in Jefferson County so its wealthy clients could dress up like tweedy Edwardian English gentlemen and blast away at pheasants, all while keeping the public out.

Nothing angers an Idahoan quite like a “no trespassing” sign or a fence posted on public land.

Thankfully, the IDL hasn’t granted any of these companies’ requests for leases. But the department is finding it increasingly hard to justify its denials. The state Constitution requires endowment lands to be used for the highest financial benefit, and some of the money is used to fund public schools, veterans’ homes and the school for the deaf and blind in Gooding.

Clearly, a hunting company willing to pay top dollar for a lease represents a higher financially beneficial use of the land than keeping it open just so folks can enjoy the scenery for free.

Neighboring states offer Idaho several options, but none of them are especially appealing. In Montana, the state charges user fees to access some public land. Utah charges fees for off-road vehicle registration.

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Officials in Idaho have considered allowing another state agency to lease the endowment lands, thereby sidestepping the constitutional conundrum. Problem is, none of the agencies has a big pile of cash handy to lease land the state already owns.

This week, Boise Democrat Mat Erpelding introduced a resolution saying the Legislature is “opposed to any proposals that bar Idaho hunters, anglers and trappers from accessing state endowment trust land on the basis of exclusivity.”

We support the spirit of the resolution and hope it passes, because we believe it reflects the opinions of most Idahoans. But it doesn’t do much to resolve the issue. It’s only a matter of time before the state finds itself in a courtroom if it continues to deny these leases for private hunting companies.

The IDL is researching policy changes. And the state Land Board, whose members are the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state superintendent and state controller, has final say.

Whatever the fix, we hope the board listens hard to the wishes of Idahoans. It should always put the interests of Idaho residents ahead of private companies.

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