62% of Idaho’s Land Is Public: Here’s Why Its Citizens Are Fighting to Keep it that Way

The Saddleback Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. Anna Gorin / Getty Images

This weekend outdoors advocates will converge on the Idaho statehouse to protest the threat that public lands are facing under the Trump administration and majority Republican Congress. Public lands are a particularly important issue in Idaho as they count for 62 percent of the state’s landmass with 32 million acres accessible to hunters, anglers, hikers, and, well, everyone.

Organized and promoted by a panoply of groups with interests in the outdoors, the issue of public lands truly reaches across the aisle in Idaho. “There are people who name wolves that are going to go to this rally, and then there are people who use public lands to hunt and trap wolves,” says Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. Here are just a few reasons why so many Idahoans care deeply about the public lands.

Acres for Everyone

There’s no lack of things to do in Idaho’s wilderness. “Whether you’re a hiker, biker, motorcyclist, or hunter, our public lands are our common ground,” says Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director at the Idaho Conservation League. In 2011, according to the U.S. census, around 450,000 people fished on Idaho’s lands, and nearly 250,000 hunted. Almost 550,000 people, residents and non-resident, came out to watch the wildlife.

“I’m a skier. I’m a snowboarder. I am a big-time sportsman,” says Brooks. “I hunt big game and small game. I like to float rivers. I like to fly-fish and I like to fish with a spinning rod. I like to climb mountains.” The sheer amount of outdoor activity, and the freedom to do them, is what makes Idaho public lands so special. “To me, our public lands are the very definition of freedom,” says Michael Gibson, Trout Unlimited’s Idaho Field Coordinator. “You can fish, hunt, camp, hike, you name it, and no one can tell you that you can’t be there. That is fundamental to what it means to be free.”

For some, the experience is personal. “You get to test who you are as a person and what you like to do when you are out there,” says Brooks. “Pursuing writhing trout up the stream without ever crossing the tracks of another human, or without having to come to a fence that says ‘No Trespassing’ — to have that taken away would take away our
culture and our identity.”

Vast Rivers

Idaho is home to some incredible rivers. The Salmon River is the longest free-flowing river that heads and flows within a single state. But the unraveling of the Clean Water Act puts the rivers and fish that live there in vast danger. “Idaho’s abundant wild rivers are a direct result of the state’s wealth of publicly owned land,” says Greg Stahl, communications and research director with Idaho Rivers United. “With the headwaters of every major river system in the state originating on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, any threat to public land in Idaho is a direct threat to our clean water, wild fish, and thousands of miles of rivers that attract paddlers and anglers from around the planet.”


Easy Access

“Idaho is blessed to have such easy access to public land,” says Eric Willadsen, the stewardship coordinator for the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley. “There is something for everyone right outside their front yard.” Access to the land is one of the key selling points of tourism in Idaho, one of its top three industries. “This past fall, I gave a small presentation exploring the topic of recreation as it relates to living in our community,” says Gary S Thompson III, a leadership coordinator at the University of Idaho. “A key point was the sharing of survey data that shows access as a primary value of survey participants. Access to public lands supports our recreation economy, provides a high quality of life for our families and children and contributes to the overall health and welfare of our community. “Personally, I fail to see how the selling off of public lands is anything other than the eradication of this way of life.”