If you want to know why Idaho Fish and Game is plunking down more than $1 million to keep the gates open, consider the latest episode involving the Wilks boys.
Texas billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks have acquired about 672,000 acres in five Western states — including 200,000 in Idaho and another 360,000 in Montana. Now they’re fencing people out.
In Valley County, the brothers threw up a gate along Cabarton Road in Valley County. Although it’s a U.S .Forest Service Road, the Texans own the land crossing it.
They did the same thing last year by blocking a road just north of Bogus Basin ski area and east of Horseshoe Bend.
At the same time, the Wilks played a substantial role in persuading Idaho legislators to toughen up the state’s penalties for trespassing.
Your father’s private landowners, they are not.
Not that long ago, large companies such as Boise-Cascade recognized a long-standing accommodation between themselves and ordinary Idahoans — particularly when their private property provided access to public lands.
As the Wilks demonstrate, that ethos is yielding to an era of income inequality and conspicuous consumption.
So the Idaho Fish and Game Department got pro-active.
A year ago, it spent about $580,000 to secure access to 2.3 million acres of Idaho endowment lands. Those tracts may be held by the state, but Idaho’s Constitution mandates they be used for the “maximum long term financial return” for endowed institutions, mostly public schools. Given that constitutional provision, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone with the Wilks’ resources and attitude would bid up the price of a lease and seal it off from everybody else.
Fish and Game’s payment precludes that possibility.
Last month, the agency made a similar arrangement with private companies — about $1 an acre for 567,000 acres of PotlatchDeltic land as well as another 300,000 acres held by a consortium including Stimson Lumber Co., Hancock Forest Management and the Molpus Woodlands Group.
Throw into the mix about 371,707 acres opened up to Idaho sportsmen through the Fish and Game’s Access Yes! grants.
The money comes from a surcharge imposed on people who purchase a fishing, hunting, trapping or combination license. Idaho residents pay $5. Residents younger than 18, 65 or older, disabled veterans or on military furlough are charged $2.
Sportsmen who buy an out-of-state license pay $10.
In all, they are investing more than $1.4 million a year for the right to cross onto these lands. But their efforts benefit more than people who are setting traps, carrying a rifle or a fishing rod. They secure access for the hiker, the berry picker and the wildlife photographer.
It’s beginning to look a bit lopsided, too.
Across the country, the percentage of the population that hunts and fishes is relatively small.
For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the number of people who hunted in 2016 came to 11. 4 million, down from 13.7 million five years earlier. The number of anglers rose to about 39.5 million from 33.1 million in 2011.
Idaho’s numbers are more robust. About 350,000 Idaho residents hunt, fish or both. Another 120,000 nonresidents visit Idaho to engage in hunting, trapping and fishing.
It’s still a relatively small sliver of the population as a whole. For every person who purchases a hunting or fishing license and pays a surcharge to guarantee public access in Idaho, there are another four who benefit.
Fish and Game relies on dedicated income, which gives it a measure of autonomy. There’s always push back whenever someone suggests the state as a whole ought to be paying to support wildlife management — and now, the general public’s ability to visit that wildlife. Allocating general tax dollars into Fish and Game’s coffers would only make it more of a political punching bag.
But at some point, you have to wonder: If there is a price to be paid to keep the gates open, shouldn’t more of us contribute? — M.T.