Editor’s note: This editorial appeared recently in  the McCall Star-News and is reprinted with permission.

It was a surprise to just about everyone when a massive iron gate appeared on Green Gate Road, a popular recreational access near McCall. The incident should serve as a cautionary tale to those who advocate turning federal lands over to state control.

The new owner of the 160-acre timbered parcel on the west side of Payette Lake did what many who desire privacy and security would naturally do – block the road into his property. But what Doug Richison of Tulsa, Okla., apparently did not know is the road was a popular access to state and federal lands on that side of the lake, both summer and winter. What most users of the road also did not know was that they were being allowed to trespass by a benevolent Idaho Department of Lands and the previous owner of the 160 acres surrounded by state land. The road was open, so people used it for mountain biking, hiking, picking huckleberries, riding their ATVs and gathering firewood.

But the so-called "public" access was a false impression. Lands administered by the IDL may be state land, but they are by no means public. The Idaho Constitution says those lands are to be managed for one purpose only, to make money for the state by cutting trees and selling rights to gather decorative rock or other uses. If people want to go pick berries, camp out or cut a Christmas tree, the IDL won’t stop them, but such activities are not specifically authorized. State forests are not parks. Only the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation manages state parks.

It is easy to confuse the use of state land with those of national forests, which are open to all people any time of the year with some exceptions, such as separating snowmobiles and backcountry skiers. On federal lands, some uses are designated, like campgrounds, national recreation areas and wilderness. But lacking those labels, the public may still walk, bike, run an ATV or sleep on them. Not so with state lands, which are considered an asset, not an amenity.

That point should be kept in mind when viewing proposals by some to transfer control of federal lands to state control. While such transfers would come with many conditions, there still would be the loss of the federal franchise of open and unconditional use. The closing of Green Gate Road should spotlight the value of public lands elsewhere for their unique status.