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Wilds group raises ante on fee ranchers pay for trust lands

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Members of an Idaho conservation group are doing more than complain about the low fees paid by ranchers to graze cattle on public lands. They are putting their money where their mouths are.

Idaho Watersheds Project has applied to purchase two northern Utah grazing permits on Utah school trust lands - an initiative the group says is part of an effort to protect and restore the lands from generations of overgrazing."Like Idaho and other Western states, Utah has treated these permits as a private benefit for a few ranchers while ignoring the fiduciary needs of the real beneficiaries of these lands: the school-children of Utah," said project president Jon Marvel.

IWP has applied for a 640-acre section on Clear Creek in the Raft River Mountains in Box Elder County near the Idaho border and for 5,500 acres along the shores and east of Bear Lake in Rich County. As part of IWP's bid, each application also includes a $1,000 bonus bid, meaning the current holder of the expiring lease must match the bonus or lose the permit.

Currently, the Box Elder parcel returns less than $100 per year to the School Trust Fund, while the Rich County parcel returns less than $500.

Marvel said the two bids are intended to raise "the returns to the school endowment trust in Utah while bringing to public attention the need for protection of damage riparian resources on all public land in Utah."

The existing permit holders, Utah ranchers Dan Peart and Mark Higley, have until the end of April to match IWP's bonus bids.

Dave Hebertson, spokesman for the Office of School and Institutional Trust Lands, promised that IWP's bids will not be discriminated against just because IWP is an environmental organization that has no intention of grazing livestock on the lands. "Our fiduciary responsibility is to optimize the return to the trust beneficiaries (schoolchildren)," he said.

However, the bids - which are well above market value - may well tweak the noses of Utah's livestock industry. And historically, livestock interests have had considerable influence on the trust land board, which has rejected various proposed increases in grazing fees over the years.

Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, expressed concern about allowing grazing permits to fall into the hands of conservation groups that have no intention of using the permits.

"Grazing is an effective land management tool, and I hope the board looks at the long-term stewardship these leaseholders have had," Tanner said. "These ranch families have been working the lands for a century now, and I hope the board will look beyond a one-time flash-in-the-pan bid and recognize the long-term stewardship."

The economic return of trust lands is the legal mandate of SITLA, but Hebertson said that maximum economic return is not always the driving force in such decisions. If the intended use of the trust lands is in conflict with the long-range mission of the trust, the land board might reject the application even if it would have meant more money to the trust.

"We try to look at the eternal scheme of things in making those decisions," Hebertson said, adding the "intended use" argument has typically been applied to things like waste dump but never to grazing permits on Utah school trust lands.

According to Marvel, the trust land board in Idaho has rejected several IWP bids in favor of ranchers, even though IWP offered bids hundreds of times higher than the ranchers. Those actions resulted in lawsuits that are now pending before the Idaho Supreme Court.

"We are expecting much smooth-er sailing in Utah," Marvel said. "And we hope to use the Utah experience to influence what happens here in Idaho."

Last year, grazing returned about $435,000 a year to the School Trust Fund. That amounted to less than 2 percent of the $35 million raised by the trust.

The 850-member IWP is based in Hailey, Idaho.