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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of February 19 - 25, 2003

News

Bill would severely diminish Fish and Gameís land-purchases options


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Statewide legislation imposing stringent rules on the Idaho Department of Fish and Gameís ability to purchase land could result from isolated frustration over a program designed to reclaim wildlife habitat lost when the lower Snake River dams were built.

The Idaho Legislature and Idaho Department of Fish and Game faced off last week when three North Idaho lawmakers submitted legislation that would take away the departmentís ability to acquire more land.

The bill, which proposes to amend Idaho Code to impose restrictions on the departmentís ability to acquire any "interest" in additional property, is sponsored by District 1 lawmakers, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Rep. John Campbell, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover.

The bill is in direct response to growing concern in District 1 that Boundary County, Idahoís northernmost county, is unfairly dominated by public land ownership, said Eskridge.

"Especially in Boundary County, more than 75 percent of the land is owned by the feds or by the state," Eskridge said. "That leaves very little in terms of economic opportunities for the county."

Fish and Gameís ownership, however, is relatively small. Of the 817,000 acres in Boundary County, Fish and Game owns 4,600 acres, or .5 percent of the total land area, said Fish and Game Panhandle Region staff biologist Mary Terra-Berns.

Several recent events, however, could be helping to prod the legislatorsí efforts.

Fish and Gameís acreage grew last year when the agency purchased the 1,400-acre Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area using funds earmarked for habitat restoration under the 1980 Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act. The federal law requires the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to address the impacts of Columbia River hydroelectric dams on fish and wildlife.

What that means for Idaho Fish and Game is money used to purchase or protect habitat. Approximately one-third of the money used to buy the Boundary Creek preserve resulted because of the federal law, said Berns, who is in charge of the regionís land acquisitions.

Second, disputes erupted recently over a 760-acre farm adjacent to the new Boundary Creek preserve. According to RuralNorthwest.comís "Boundary Archives," Fish and Game withdrew an offer in April 2002 to purchase the land in the name of wetlands preservation.

County commissioners were unwilling to cede more county land to state or federal control and remained skeptical of assurances that offset funding offered by the government in lieu of property taxes would be adequate to save local taxpayers from being forced to pay higher taxes, reported "Boundary Archives."

Now the issue, which began as a dispute over north Idaho wetlands preservation, could trigger statewide legislation affecting Fish and Gameís ability to buy hunting or fishing access easements or wildlife habitat.

The bill, House Bill 252, is scheduled for a hearing by the House Resources and Conservation Committee today. If made law, it would require that before the Fish and Game Commission may acquire land, it "shall first be required to sell" another piece of property of equal size and in the same county. An out-of-county sale would be permitted if the department does not own enough property within a countyís borders.

The bill prompted a quick response from Fish and Game.

"House Bill 252 would severely limit future hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities and adversely affect private property rights," wrote Fish and Game Communications Director Roger Furhman in an e-mail to fish and wildlife conservation groups.

Furhman said the bill would effectively stop the departmentís efforts to provide additional hunting and fishing access and would limit the departmentís ability to protect critical wildlife habitat.

He added that the bill would affect private property rights by limiting landownersí range of options concerning their property ownership and could reduce potential property values determined through lease, rent or easement to Fish and Game.

But Eskridge touted the bill as a means to keep private lands on county tax rolls. Though Fish and Gameólike the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Managementópays in lieu taxes to counties where it owns property, the money paid does not correspond to the potential "highest and best use" of the land, Eskridge said.

"They pay an in-lieu tax, but thatís not always the same as farmland or if an industrial use went in there," Eskridge said.

For his part, Campbell, a former outdoor columnist, vented his apparent frustration on the issue.

"Why are they (Fish and Game) in the land business?" he asked. "I figured we, as sportsmen, ought to be in the wildlife management business, and theyíre out there buying up all this land. They ought to be spending that money on better management.

"Fish and Game gives a waltz and dance all the time. Fish and Game is a joke."

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said he would oppose the bill if it makes it to the Senate.

"Itís a terrible bill," he said. "It has the potential to create a significant impact all over the state in ways I donít think the sponsors ever considered."

Two years ago, Stennett donated 1 acre of riverfront property to Fish and Game for fishing access along the Big Lost River. The donation probably would not have been possible if Fish and Game had to adhere to regulations like those proposed.

Stennett called the bill "unwieldy and unworkable."

The bill is the three North-Idaho lawmakersí second fish and wildlife-related legislation of the session. A separate bill, House Bill 110, passed the House of Representatives unanimously on Feb. 12. If approved by the Senate, the bill would create a commission that would oversee management of water quality and fish species in North Idaho rivers and lakes.

"The commission shall also have the authority to receive and direct any mitigation moneys Ö " the bill states.

It is not clear whether that would be in violation of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act.

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