By JOHN MILLER
Legislators on Wednesday approved new state grazing lease rules aimed at helping resolve more than a decade of conflict that has pitted environmental groups against Idaho and the state's traditional ranching interests.
The rules will govern how contested lease auctions are held; set out new categories of leases for conservation, recreation and even communication sites, in addition to those for grazing or cropland, and ease the process for allowing multiple leases on the same state parcel, provided there is no conflict.
State House and Senate Resource committees approved the new rules, which were drawn up by the Idaho Land Board last year, on Wednesday. The rules go into effect immediately.
George Bacon, head of the Department of Lands, said he was optimistic they will help end strife that began in the 1990s when environmentalists bid for leases, only to lose even after offering more money than ranchers.
Groups such as Western Watersheds Project, which seeks to end public-land grazing, have taken Idaho to court and won, on grounds the Land Board is constitutionally required to get maximum income from 1.8 million acres of state endowment grazing land for public schools.
Idaho has repeatedly lost money on grazing lands but in 2008 reported a profit of $213,358 on revenues of $1,570,109.
Bacon called the new system "more transparent, and it makes it more honest." He said the new rules are also aimed at reducing costly paperwork that has cut into endowment income in recent years.
"The old process was resulting in administrative inefficiency for the department, uncertainty for the lease applicants and litigation for both of them," Bacon said.
The Idaho Cattle Association objected to the rules but eventually agreed after demanding several changes Wednesday. Among those changes were provisions to forbid lease bidders from saying they'll graze an allotment without actually intending to do so; requiring Idaho to renew expiring, uncontested leases when there were no concerns about past management, and dumping a plan let the Land Board decide rental rates.
Association President Carl Ellsworth, who runs a ranch in Leadore in central Idaho, said his group can live with the new rules, at least for now.
"I think the changes in the rules give enough flexibility to our traditional users and allow the Land Board to look at other options," Ellsworth said.
He declined to comment on a possible state constitutional amendment that some in his group have discussed as a means of better preserving the ranching industry's access to grazing leases. Such an amendment would have to win two-thirds of the state House and Senate to make the November 2010 ballot.
The rule changes won by the cattle association could be grounds for a Washington state environmentalist to refile claims stemming from a grazing lease lawsuit. Gordon Younger sued Idaho in U.S. District Court after he was the high bidder on seven Idaho leases, but still lost to livestock owners. He later settled the case for $50,000 in legal fees -- and a provision that called for the Legislature to approve these new rules.
Laird Lucas, Younger's attorney in Boise, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
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