Dead tycoons complicate Idaho guv’s cost-cutting

admin Contributor
Font Size:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Dead for decades, U.S. railroad and banking tycoons Averell and Roland Harriman are complicating Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s aim to disband Idaho’s parks agency and fill a budget hole.

Otter wants to bank $10 million by selling Department of Parks and Recreation headquarters near Boise and moving oversight of 30 state parks to other agencies, including the Department of Land.

But the Republican governor has been forced to reconsider because the Harriman brothers surrendered their 11,000-acre ranch along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River to the state only after winning concessions.

They wanted it to be called Harriman State Park — and insisted Idaho create a professional agency to manage it. Violating that provision by cutting the agency, according to legal documents reviewed by The Associated Press, could mean Idaho would have to give the property back.

David Hensley, Otter’s staff attorney, conceded Wednesday that having a parks department oversee their land was important to the brothers, but said “there could be a way to move Parks and Recreation to the Department of Land without upsetting the fundamental tenets of the Harriman gift agreement.”

The Gladys and Roland Harriman Foundation in New York declined comment on whether Otter’s proposal violates the family’s agreement with Idaho.

Yvonne Ferrell, a former Parks and Recreation chief for 15 years under three Idaho governors, opposes the plan to disband the agency and move management elsewhere.

Before the parks department’s founding in 1965, Ferrell said, Idaho’s existing state parks were managed by the Department of Lands. She thinks going back would put Idaho at risk if the Harriman heirs take issue with his changes.

“To give it back, it seems to be going backward, instead of forward,” Ferrell said.

Current parks chief Nancy Merrill couldn’t be reached for comment.

As chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman, who died in 1986, built Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort in 1936. His brother, Roland, who died in 1978, met then-Gov. Robert Smylie in Boise in the 1950s at a charitable event.

It was a fortuitous encounter: Smylie had run for governor in 1954 on a ticket of creating a state parks system. The Harrimans were looking to preserve their Railroad Ranch near Island Park from “becoming nothing more than an uncontrolled real-estate development with hot dog stands and cheap honky tonks,” according to a Parks and Recreation history.

But these blue-blooded New Yorkers didn’t want just anybody looking after ground in eastern Idaho they had run as a cattle ranch and family retreat since their father bought it in the early 1900s.

“The people of the State of Idaho … will establish a professionally staffed career park service,” according to a 1961 agreement between Idaho and the Harrimans.

After failing twice, Smylie persuaded lawmakers to create the agency in 1965.

Negotiations with the Harrimans concluded in 1977 with the transfer of their ranch to Idaho, which opened the park in 1982 as a sanctuary for elk, moose, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans — and anglers stalking Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Henry’s Fork.

Just four years ago, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and lawmakers used a flush budget to approve up to $26.5 million to expand and improve Idaho’s parks, including Harriman. Kempthorne’s work championing state parks won the attention of then-President George W. Bush, who named Kempthorne U.S. Interior secretary in 2006.

Now, however, with Idaho facing a tax shortfall, Otter’s solution for the department is to dismantle management and boost user fees, so campers and hikers, not taxpayers, pick up the tab.

“The underlying intent of this is to keep parks open,” said Keith Reynolds, a budget office analyst working out details of Parks and Recreation’s possible dissolution. “No matter how this ends up, we’re going to achieve this.”