BOISE — A new Idaho law will protect the private information of farmers, ranchers and other landowners who enter into voluntary conservation agreements with soil conservation districts to protect sage grouse.

The law, which went into effect July 1, exempts the land management plans of these voluntary stewardship agreements from disclosure under Idaho’s public records act.

House Bill 291 didn’t garner much attention during the 2015 Idaho legislative session but Sen. Bert Brackett, a Republican rancher from Rogerson, believes it was one of the most important pieces of legislation to be passed.

“We don’t want anything to put a damper on landowners’ willingness to enter into conservation agreements,” he said. “People should not be punished for doing the right thing.”

Rep. Steven Miller, a Republican farmer and rancher from Fairfield and the bill’s sponsor, said the law should give landowners more confidence when they’re considering entering into voluntary conservation agreements.

Miller is the superintendent of the Camas Soil Conservation District and past president of the Idaho Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

“Farmers and ranchers are not that crazy about having everyone look at their business information,” he said. “This should give them a little more incentive, or less of a disincentive, to work with conservation districts in these types of efforts.”

Without this type of exemption, landowners are cautious about entering into voluntary conservation agreements, said Steve Thompson, the district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Thompson oversees the agency’s work with the Gooding and Camas county soil conservation districts, which led the effort to craft House Bill 291.

“They are less likely to develop a voluntary plan if their personal and private business information isn’t protected,” he said. But with the exemption, “they will be more willing to step up and do some conservation planning.”

If someone submits a Freedom of Information Act request with NRCS about a voluntary conservation agreement, the agency would redact any personal and sensitive information on behalf of the landowner and would only release information about how the resource will be benefited and the conservation practices that will be used, Thompson said.

Because of the new Idaho law, landowners who enter into voluntary stewardship agreements to protect sage grouse with local soil conservation districts will now enjoy that same type of protection.

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