Report: Idaho public lands illegally sold

BOISE — A report jointly released Wednesday by the Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society suggests that the Idaho Department of Lands sold hundreds of thousands of acres of state land to private interests in violation of the state Constitution over the course of roughly a century.

The information comes in a follow-up to a 2016 report, where The Wilderness Society documented that nearly half of Idaho’s public endowment lands have been sold since the state received them upon being granted statehood.

“Our most recent examination revealed an unsettling pattern: broad and widespread liquidation of state lands in direct violation of the Idaho Constitution. In short, Idaho has a decades‐long pattern of violating the anti‐corruption provisions in the Idaho Constitution intended to prevent land that belongs to all Idahoans from being stockpiled by private interests,” the groups wrote.

Representatives of the environmental groups were clear that the report doesn’t implicate the current staff and board members. The last questionable sale they have identified began in the late 1980s — though payments on the sale weren’t complete until the late 2000s.

The Department of Lands has pledged to hire an independent auditor to investigate the conclusions of the report, a move which was welcomed by the environmental groups as “the right move.”

“I understand that the analysis by The Wilderness Society may raise concerns about land sales and want to assure Idahoans that there are measures in place today to ensure that individuals and businesses do not purchase lands exceeding constitutional limitations,” Director Tom Schultz said in a prepared statement.

The joint report, which examined every public school or state university endowment land sale since statehood, found 299 individual land sales which appear to violate the state Constitution’s prohibition on selling more than 320 acres to any individual or corporation, or an earlier limit of 160 acres. (The change came with a 1916 constitutional amendment).

An opinion by the Office of the Attorney General notes that the framers of the state constitution created the limitations to encourage the settlement of family farms and avoid speculation by land barons.

Slightly less than 1 million acres of state land subject to those requirements have been sold since statehood. Of that, more than 200,000 acres — one-fifth — have been sold in violation of constitutional mandates, the report concludes.

Some of those sales occurred quite close to Idaho Falls. The report notes that 21 individuals purchased nearly 6,000 acres for the Osgood Land and Livestock Company, which was based less than 10 miles north of the city. Other major buyers include the Boise Payette Lumber Co. (forerunner of Boise-Cascade) and the Potlach Lumber Co.

The pattern was for large companies or well-connected families to benefit from such sales, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, director of government relations for the Conservation League.

“There are some other names you would probably recognize, like Little and Bedke and Faulkner,” Oppenheimer said.

The reports come in an atmosphere of anxiety surrounding a potential transfer of federal lands to states. Utah has investigated the possibility of suing the federal government to obtain federal lands, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has pushed for a transfer on the federal level.

“It raises very significant concerns about public lands being transferred to the states and ultimately sold off,” Oppenheimer said. “If the Constitution hasn’t been successful in protecting these state lands, what’s it going to take?”

Brad Brooks, deputy director of The Wilderness Society, said state lands aren’t managed in the same way as federal public lands. Where federal lands are managed for multiple uses by the public, state lands are mandated to be managed to maximize profit for schools and other government agencies.

“State lands are not really public lands,” he said.

The report was welcomed by other public lands advocates, including hunting groups.

“Seventy-two percent of western sportsmen rely on public ground for hunting,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This study shows that transfer of those public lands to state or private control is a direct and continuing threat to sportsmen.”

Oppenheimer said public lands advocates are currently concerned with a bill introduced by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens. The bill requires that state agencies sell at least as much land as they buy, but it also requires agencies to identify lands for sale, which Oppenheimer thinks would pave the way for eventual land sales.

“We are keeping a close eye on that,” he said.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.