BOISE — A new report exploring the constitutionality of Idaho’s public land sales brings conflicting conclusions from the state agency in charge of those lands, which says state land sales have worked as intended, and Idaho conservation groups, which say the results underscore “significant” issues with past sales.
Central to the conflict are the 1.2 million acres of state lands that Idaho has owned and sold to private buyers since 1891, removing them from public access and use.
Two years ago, local environmental groups raised concern that Idaho had violated its own constitution when selling state-owned lands during its first century of statehood — an allegation that has been part of the groups’ campaign against turning over public federal lands to Idaho’s ownership.
On Tuesday, the Idaho Department of Lands released a report 21 months in the making that declared nearly all of those historic sales had been legal.
Employees and contractors reviewed nearly 40,000 land transactions that occurred between 1891 and 1982 to determine if they exceeded the 320-acre limit per buyer that Idaho established in 1916, the department said in a news release. It found 166 landowners, or 2 percent of sales, “that appear to have more than the legally allowable acres attributed to their names.” All of those sales occurred before 1983, and half of them occurred before 1916, the lands department said.
“It is possible some acreages in violation of the Constitution may have occurred with some of the 166 individuals or entities, but it would take significant time and resources to answer that question for several reasons,” the department said in a news release.
Spokeswoman Sharla Arledge told the Statesman on Wednesday that the department had no plans to pursue further research on those 166 potential violations, saying their unconstitutionality is “all pretty questionable.”
Those 166 instances “did not clearly demonstrate overages because historical records are unclear or do not exist, or because it is unknown if today’s legal interpretations of the limitations were applied historically,” the lands department said.
Idaho Conservation League and The Wilderness Society initially raised the issue in 2017 after “a review of requested public records revealed 300 separate instances where individuals, businesses and corporations appear to have exceeded the constitutional limit ... .”
“These limits were put in place at statehood to keep land barons and other powerful interests from taking advantage of Idaho land and people,” the groups said in a 2017 news release.
The issue is largely of historical concern as the department has tapped the brakes on state land sales in recent years.
“Endowment land sales have been minimal for much of the late 20th century through today,” the agency said in its release. “In fact, IDL sold only 670 acres of endowment land in the past 10 years.”
Report results not good enough, critic says
On Tuesday, Wilderness Society co-founder Brad Brooks said the Idaho agency’s findings only proved the conservation groups’ point.
“I feel like (the report) completely backs up what we were saying two years ago,” Brooks told the Statesman in a phone interview. “I think that many violations of our constitution is significant.”
Brooks said in the past — and particularly in 2016 and 2017 — there was a legislative push to transfer federally owned public lands to state ownership. The point of the environmental groups’ investigation was to point out the potential “dangers” of transferring federal land to state control.
“State land in Idaho is not public land,” Brooks said. “The Land Board can and does make decisions to sell ... based on its (constitutional) mandate to fund its beneficiaries.”
By highlighting past constitutional violations, Brooks said, the groups hoped to illustrate that any additional land put in Idaho’s control is at risk of being sold to private owners.
David Groeschel, the department’s deputy director, told the Statesman on Wednesday that the Land Board doesn’t advocate for the transfer of federal lands to state control. He called the conservation groups’ point about losing public land “a red herring.”
Why Idaho says it’s satisfied
The Idaho Department of Lands said there were several factors that contributed to environmental groups’ figure of 300 landowners exceeding the acreage limit — such as married couples who were initially counted as a single individuals rather than separately and data that had been input in the department’s archives incorrectly.
Ultimately, though, the state agency said the relatively small number of issues in the state’s historical land sales points to a system that works.
“The examination of more than 100 years of historic endowment land sales confirms there is no basis for claims by environmental advocacy groups that past Land Boards engaged in widespread violations of the Idaho Constitution,” director Dustin Miller said in the news release. “Considering the lack of modern computer tracking systems in the state’s first 100 years and the difficulty of manual recordkeeping statewide, it speaks well of the commitment to managing endowment lands for the beneficiaries.”
According to IDL, two-thirds of Idaho’s original 3.6 million acres remain in the state’s possession. The bulk of the 1.2 million acres of state lands that Idaho has sold was sold prior to the 1980s.
Brooks said the issue is still significant.
“(The IDL) didn’t address the glaring issues,” he said. “The state just acknowledged they think there are 166 constitution violations. That would alarm people if it were any other issue.”
You can read the Department of Lands’ full report here.