An internal report by the Idaho Department of Lands on Tuesday revealed that more than 150 people may have violated the state limits on how much public, state-owned land they can purchase.
During a 21-month investigation, the Department of Lands created a database containing nearly 40,000 sales of state-owned land to private owners since Idaho first became a state and found 166 people who may have bought more land than the state constitution allows. Half of the possible violations that were flagged occurred prior to the current land laws were established in 1916 and no suspicious sales were found after 1983, according to the report.
"That was over 35 years ago, so in our minds that's not widespread. I say that's pretty reassuring that the department has been good stewards of the land in trying to track that and manage these," deputy director David Groeschl said.
Idaho laws state that a private person or company cannot purchase more than 320 acres of land from the state during their lifetime or more than 100 acres per year of land set aside for public schools and universities. The rules are meant to limit land sales that could be used for kickbacks and ensure that the state will not sell all of its land to logging companies or other corporations.
The investigation was sparked by a 2017 report from the Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League that alleging more than 300 land sales involved more land than was legally allowed by the state constitution. That report also included accusations of illegal purchases by Boise Payette Lumber and Osgood Livestock.
Wilderness Society director Brad Brooks argues that the results of the Department of Lands report only further the group's belief that the state has acted irresponsibly with these land sales and that any illegal sale needs to be fully investigated.
"We have to inform the public that there have been possible constitutional violations and there need to be safeguards in place so that it cannot happen again," Brooks said.
Inconsistencies with the names in the land purchase records and the differing land sales laws before and after 1916 make it difficult to determine which sales were illegal. It also remains unclear what the results would be if a 70-year-old land sale was found to be unconstitutional.
The report includes few names or details of the people involved in the potentially illegal sales, though the Department of Land says that information is available to the public. The Department of Land said there are no plans to continue looking into the potential violations and that the resources required to fully determine the legality of the sales could be put to better use.
"We've gleaned as much information as we can right now from this," Groeschl said.
The report comes amid a long-standing debate about the best use for state and federal land. Since 1891, Idaho has sold to private owners more than a third of the acreage it was originally given by the federal government. These sales restrict or eliminate the public use of the land, outraging nature groups such as the Idaho Conservation League and hunters who rely on public land. Currently, the federal government owns more than 61 percent of the land in Idaho, while the state manages around 5 percent.
Several efforts this decade have attempted to increase how much land the state owns. In 2013, the state legislature drafted a resolution to transfer all federal land in Idaho to the state government. That effort was widely criticized for both the legality of the transfer and the difficulties the state would have monitoring the vast swaths of new land and fighting wildfires. In the last 10 years, the Department of Lands has purchased 5,703 acres from the federal government or private citizens.
“All Idahoans that use public lands and value access should be alarmed by this admission by the Department (of Lands)," Brooks said in a news release. "The fact is, we cannot trust the state not to sell off public lands should they get their hands on it.”