State Politics

Report shows Idaho has sold 41 percent of its land since statehood

Sally Jewell Stands Up For Public Lands

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave a speech April 19 where she took on those who would sell or dispose of national public land.(Rocky Barker)
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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave a speech April 19 where she took on those who would sell or dispose of national public land.(Rocky Barker)

Since Congress gave land to Idaho at statehood, the state has sold two of every five acres to timber companies, cattle ranchers, private fishing clubs and lakeside homeowners on Priest and Payette lakes.

That comes from an analysis of Idaho Department of Lands data obtained by The Wilderness Society through a public records request. The group advocates keeping national forests and public lands under federal control.

“History is clear on what will happen if our national public lands are given to the state,” said Brad Brooks, The Wilderness Society’s deputy regional director, based in Boise. “They’re almost certain to end up in hands that will lock the public out.”

Idaho lawmakers have debated the issue of getting some or all of the 61 percent of the state that is owned by the federal government transferred to state ownership or management. But Idaho officials have stopped short of joining Utah and other states in lawsuits that most attorneys say have little chance of winning. And proponents of a state takeover argue that it would not mean a sell-off of those lands. They say the state could manage those lands to be more productive, profitable and fire-resistant.

Republican Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, one of the strongest advocates for transferring federal lands to the state, noted that she was one of the co-sponsors of an Idaho constitutional amendment protecting the right to hunt, fish and trap in Idaho and cherishes access to the lands.

“There’s no way I would agree to a massive sell-off of the federal lands, but the issue is how the federal government manages these lands,” Boyle said.

That doesn’t comfort skeptics, who cite history in their concerns about public ownership and access to those lands.

During its history, the state of Idaho has sold 1,760,783 acres of the 4,254,448 acres of land it got at statehood to private interests, according to the analysis of land sale data by The Wilderness Society.

The report is titled “SOLD! Idaho lands – and recreation access – lost to the highest bidder.” The Society reviewed data from more than 16,000 parcels auctioned off by the state. The sales privatized and closed access to an amount of lands nearly the size of the entire Sawtooth National Forest, the environmental group said.

The database shows that early in state history, Potlatch Corp. and Boise-Payette Co. — the precursor to Boise Cascade — purchased most of the lands sold. Later, J.R. Simplot and other family members joined other agriculture interests in making purchases.

The loss of access for sportsmen in Idaho would be staggering if the state were to get its hands on our Forest Service and BLM lands and state offcials follow their land-selling history with that land, too. What other behavior should we expect?

Jerry Bullock of Blackfoot, a Safari Club International and National Rifle Association member.

Over time, management decisions steered the land sales, said Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz. In the 1980s thousands of acres of isolated parcels of state lands, often surrounded by other ownerships, were sold or exchanged. Potlatch Corp. purchased 17,889 acres of state land between 1986 and 1997.

Since the 1990s, the state has been disposing of the lake lots it previously leased to people who built cabins, second homes and often luxurious getaways. It reinvested much of the proceeds from these sales into commercial real estate.

There’s nothing to prevent the federal government from selling off this land to pay off the federal debt or something else.

Idaho Rep. Judy Boyle

Now it’s beginning to sell off those commercial properties this year, after pressure from lawmakers like Nampa Republican Rep. John Vander Woude. He began opposing state commercial real estate ownership, arguing that the state as landlord has an unfair advantage over private owners who have to pay property tax.

Vander Woude now argues that the state should sell those properties because they produce just 1.3 percent return annually.

“They had no expertise,” Vander Woude said of state managers. “They couldn’t manage the properties at the speed of business.”

The federal government transferred the land to Idaho at statehood to be managed to help schools and to help the state economically.

John Freemuth, a Boise State political science professor, notes that the state is required to manage those lands for Idaho schools and other endowment beneficiaries to get the maximum return for their trustees.

Federal lands, meanwhile, are managed differently, for multiple goals that include recreation, water and wildlife. Public access is fundamental. That hasn’t always been the case for the state’s trust lands.

“Having public access and multiple-use values allows us to really practice democratic deliberation, however messy,” Freemuth said

“Once these public lands end up in the hands of corporations and private individuals, the freedom to use and enjoy them is almost impossible to get back,” James Holt, a Nez Perce tribal member and former chairman of the Tribal Fish & Wildlife Commission, said in a press release. “We’ve already lost access to 1.7 million acres of land. That’s land Idahoans won’t ever get back.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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Examples of other state land sales

▪  715 acres to Bunker Hill Mining in the Silver Valley.

▪  321 acres to Arizona-based mining conglomerate ASARCO Inc. in 1991.

▪  87 acres by Blue Lakes Country Club in Twin Falls in 1967.

▪  41 acres to The Flat Rock Club, a private group of flyfishers. That closed access to that land along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

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