Idaho agreed Tuesday to pay $50,000 and pledged to follow anti-discrimination rules to settle a federal lawsuit against state officials who awarded grazing leases to ranchers, not the environmentalist who had offered more money.
The Idaho Board of Land has also committed to revising its rules to allow conservation groups to lease state endowment trust lands, a big change after years of fierce litigation. The board's five members are the governor, state controller, secretary of state, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction.
In 2006, Washington state businessman and environmentalist Gordon Younger was the high bidder on seven Idaho grazing leases, but lost when the Board of Land with then-Gov. Jim Risch gave the leases to livestock owners. Younger, who planned to manage the lands to restore what he called "their degraded streams and wildlife habitats," sued in U.S. District Court on grounds he was the victim of discrimination.
Laird Lucas, attorney for Younger's Lazy Y Ranch Ltd., said Tuesday he's optimistic this settlement and the Board of Land's revised leasing rules represent a departure from the past, when conservation groups were bullied out of winning state grazing leases and left no other option than to sue.
"If someone is willing to put up money for conservation on state lands, we want them to be treated fairly," Lucas said. "This is the first time we've achieved reform in how state lands are managed."
The state's new leasing rules, whose changes address more issues than just this lease dispute, await final approval in the 2010 Legislature.
There, they could still face opposition from livestock-industry advocates.
If the rules are rejected, Tuesday's settlement allows Younger to refile his claims against Idaho.
But "if legislative ratification does occur, Lazy Y waives, forfeits and otherwise relinquishes any and all right to refile such claims," according to the pact, which also requires Board of Land members to "recognize their obligation to apply applicable statutes and rules consistent with federal or state equal protection requirements."
The Idaho Constitution demands Board of Land members carefully preserve state endowment trust lands, to secure the maximum long-term financial return to benefit public schools.
Ranchers have contended their industry's impact on local economies should also be taken into account, but that argument has failed to persuade judges: Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group to which Younger is a contributor, in 1999 won unanimous Idaho Supreme Court decisions rejecting grazing-lease preferences for ranchers.
Clive Strong, a deputy attorney general and natural resource law specialist, said Idaho's new leasing rules will help create a level playing field for all parties interested in securing a lease — and help the state avoid costly lawsuits.
"The Land Board recognized the current process was not working and was leading the way to litigation," Strong said. "It was determined to find a better process."
According to Tuesday's settlement, state officials didn't acknowledge wrongdoing, but will pay $50,000 to cover the Lazy Y's litigation fees. Lazy Y, meanwhile, held open the possibility of bidding for the 10-year leases again when they become available.
Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, and David Hensley, Otter's staff lawyer, didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment.