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Yurts complex near Idaho City reopened to public

Yurts like this one in the Idaho City Park and Ski Areas have been reopened after state and federal officials came to an agreement over liability issues. Photo courtesy of Idaho Parks and Recreation

State and federal officials have overcome legal snarls to reopen the a popular complex of six yurts near Idaho City.

Idaho Parks and Recreation announced Dec. 20 that it had reached a deal with the Boise National Forest to obtain a special use permit allowing the state to operate the yurts on Forest Service land.

The yurts are open immediately and people who had reservations to stay in the Mongolian-style structures before the complex was shut down will have an opportunity to reclaim the dates they had originally asked for, said Jennifer Okerlund, spokeswoman for Idaho Parks and Recreation.

“They have already started calling,” Okerlund said about outdoor enthusiasts ready to reclaim or reserve yurt dates.

The yurts had been closed since late summer, when federal officials noticed that there was no special use permit in place.

The agreement comes a week after a coalition of residents, lawmakers and outdoor businesses sent a letter to Boise National Forest and Idaho Parks and Recreation expressing displeasure with the time it had already taken to get the yurts reopened.

Steve Stuebner, a spokesman for the coalition, said Dec. 20 that everyone was “thrilled” the yurts were back in business.

“It’s just great to see the agencies come to an agreement quickly. And if our campaign had anything to do with that, that’s awesome,” Stuebner said.

The yurt program allowst the yurts to be rented for about $60 per night.

Okerlund said that people can start calling in at 8 a.m., Dec. 26, to make new reservations. People who had cancelled reservations are already being called to see if they would like to reclaim them, she said. Dates that are not reclaimed before Dec. 26 will be available that morning, she said.

Legal constraints on both agencies had prevented a quick end to the problem, despite federal and state officials both being supportive of the yurt program.

The legal problems started with a policy change by the National Forest Service in 2008 that requires anyone receiving a special use permit on national forest land to indemnify the United States — or make sure the United States is held harmless if problems or injuries occur on the land.

The policy change also alters a minimum to the liability insurance that the special use permit holder, in this case the state of Idaho, must pay for to qualify for the permit.

Idaho has several statutes that prevent state agencies from indemnifying anyone, including the United States government, in most situations.

Codes in Title 59, Chapter 10 of Idaho law state that agencies or other Idaho representatives are not allowed to enter into contracts that incur any liability for the state it didn’t already have. The codes also prohibit entering into a contract that requires more money than the Legislature appropriated for the purpose — in this case, increasing liability coverage.

Because of the differing policies and statutes, the “agreement wasn’t working for either party at all,” Okerlund said.

Danelle Highfill, Boise National Forest recreation program manager, said the agencies worked out an agreement that’s good for a year with a different type of contract from the special use permit.

The contract is a cost-sharing cooperative agreement that includes both the state and Forest Service, which allows more flexible language regarding liability, Highfill said.

Attorneys will try to work out a compromise on the more rigid special use permit that can be issued for up to 20 years.

“We plan to have this resolved before the one year expires,” Highfill said.

Idaho will still be responsible for operating the yurts over the next year, but the federal government will have to get involved for some liability inspections, signage issues and other federal guidelines that they are required to meet when operating programs on Forest Service land, Highfill said.

The coalition had blamed the Forest Service for the delays in getting the yurts operational.

“It’s our opinion that the Forest Service is making a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ with respect to concerns about liability insurance to indemnify the Forest Service from self-guided people using the Park and Ski trails and the yurts,” the coalition stated in a Dec. 12 letter.

The coalition letter, which has 21 signatures, states that about 2,500 people use the yurts every year. The reservations generate about $80,000 in revenue for Idaho Parks and Recreation, it states.

After the yurts were shut down, the state lost more than $25,000, it states.

About Sean Olson