Proposed legislation may jeopardize public access to Harriman State Park
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IDAHO FALLS — Park and wildlife associations around Idaho are worried about a proposed bill that if passed, could end up taking Harriman State Park away from the public.
The legislation, House Bill 496, proposed by Rep. Joe Palmer (R-Meridian) on Feb. 5, doesn’t directly have anything to do with Harriman State Park.
Its focus is on restructuring the administration of several state agencies — namely the Idaho Department of Correction, the Idaho Transportation Department and Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. The legislation proposes that directors of these agencies should be hired or fired directly by the governor, and not by a board of trustees, which is currently the case.
What loops Harriman into the discussion is a clause in the gift agreement made between the Harriman family and the state in 1961. Part of the agreement states the director that oversees the park — in this case, the director of Parks and Recreation — must be appointed by a board based on professional merit. So if this bill passes, it could potentially cause the ownership of Harriman State Park to revert to the Harriman Estate.
Jodi Stiehl, president of the nonprofit organization Friends of Harriman State Park, said the organization has been actively writing letters to the State Affairs Committee to get the director of parks and recreation amended from the bill.
“If this bill were to pass, it would indeed violate the gift conditions of Harriman State Park,” Stiehl said.
Before Harriman State Park existed, the 11,000-acre property was called the Railroad Ranch. The gift agreement for the park was made in 1961 and signed into law in 1963. The full transfer of the gift became official in 1977.
Stiehl said organizations including the Idaho Wild Life Federation, Henry’s Fork Foundation and Conservation Voters of Idaho have been involved in a campaign to prevent the passage of the bill. In a letter to Rep. Thomas Loerstcher (R), State Affairs Committee Chair, Stiehl emphasized there is no recourse to the State once the gift agreement is broken. The Harriman family has the burden of deciding if the agreement is broken.
“We’ve been operating under this gift agreement with relatively no problems … There was an issue in 2009 where they tried to merge Idaho Parks and Recreation with Idaho Department of Lands,” Stiehl said.
Stiehl said there is no reason to affect change when the consequences are so great.
“We would lose Harriman State Park of Idaho. It’s a very beautiful Park,” Stiehl said. “A lot of the local businesses have developed their businesses around the park.”
The park holds a world-renowned fly-fishing stream which is 8 miles of the Henry’s Fork tributary of the Snake River that flows through the park, Stiehl remarked. The park that was opened in 1982 has seen some 90,000 visitors per year.
“If it was to become private access, that stretch of the stream would be by boat only,” Stiehl said. “There’s 30 miles of trails. All of that would become private.”
She said the bill passing could give the Harriman Family power to develop in the park by building houses or hotels.
The argument for the bill
During the Feb. 19, session of the State of Affairs Committee, Palmer did assure committee members he did not want to jeopardize Harriman State Park as it is an asset to the state.
“I certainly would not have any problem whatsoever with the bill going to the amending order where we have time for an Attorney General’s opinion,” Palmer said. “I am talking to an AG now to see if there is a risk of that happening or if the legislation needs to be altered in any way to make up for that.”
He said the rationale for the bill is because the governor is the CEO of the state and there are benefits to having the directors appointed through him.
Palmer said when he was put on the Transporation Committee several years ago, there were complications firing the director of the Idaho Transportation Department.
“The governor agreed that they needed to move on and it was time to for a new one. That took place and the state ended up in a lawsuit where we lost nearly $800,000 because the director did not work for the governor. I don’t want that to happen again,” Palmer said.
When the question of Harriman State Park was raised again by Rep. Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello) if the director of Parks and Recreation could be amended from the bill Palmer replied, “Absolutely. If the time comes and the Attorney General and the legislature weighs in on it. If it looks like there’s no way that we can change that board without damaging the parks, absolutely I would take it out.”
The current Parks and Recreation board has six members who are appointed by the governor.
“The sky is the limit if it becomes private again. It would be a huge loss to the people of Idaho if we were to lose Harriman State Park. I don’t really feel that it’s worth challenging the gift agreement over an appointed position,” Stiehl said.