Because the land sales happened over a long stretch of time, and there were so many of them, and so many involved tracts of land moderate in size, they tended not to attract a lot of attention, and their accumulated amount largely escaped notice.
That end result should and may, though, stick in the memory of more than a few Idahoans, because it’s reducible to one startling number: 41%.
That’s the portion of the 4.2 million acres of land the state of Idaho had at statehood, granted from the federal government, which has been sold off since – 1.8 million acres.
That number was the result of research and mathematics undertaken by The Wilderness Society, a conservation group which researched land sales through the state’s history.
The research was prompted by efforts in recent years to press for transfer to state control (read “ownership”), of the lands managed by federal agencies. (The nation has seen more of that discussion prompted by this year’s debate and standoff around Burns, Oregon.) The feds' control of lands that amount to most of the land area of Idaho can seem, and sometimes be, remote and bureaucratic. Their policy decisions are always subject for debate, especially among ranchers, timber and mining concerns, and anyone involved in outdoor recreation.
Occasionally small pieces of federal lands are traded out or sold, and in the homesteading era significant portions were. But the federal lands dispensed with over more recent years have been small, and the holdings stable. Federal land ownership in Idaho in 1990, which amounted to 32.6 million acres, actually grew very slightly, by two-tenths of one percent, as of 2013 (the most recent report I could find). The wisdom of that can be debated too.
But the Wilderness Society’s report offers some serious cautions about the consequences of state takeover.
The argument for state control is that more local people could manage the lands with greater awareness of local conditions, and with more flexibility. But the awareness involved sometimes reaches mostly to the people and interests most politically connected, and the flexibility can have negative consequences as well as positive.
The Society’s report said that Idaho state government has sold on average 13,500 acres annually, and “often put state lands in the hands of an elite few and Idaho’s biggest industries: the Simplot Corp., Potlatch, Boise-Cascade, cattle companies and law firms. Under these private ownerships, the new owners can lock out the public altogether or charge a trespass fee.”
It called out several specific cases:
“Bunker Hill Mining, the mining company with a long history and lead pollution legacy in the Silver Valley, purchased 715 acres of state land. The Bunker Hill mine area has been a Superfund cleanup site since 1983, when toxic levels of lead were discovered, including on school playgrounds. . . .
“The Flat Rock Club, a private fly fishing club that sits on 150 acres of beautiful forested land in Macks, Idaho, along the banks of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, purchased 41 acres of state land, denying public access to fishermen. . . .
“Potlatch Corp., purchased 17, 889 acres of state land between 1986 and 1997. To use this land now, recreationists must pay an annual fee, and access can be shut-off at any time by Potlatch Corp.”
41% sold so far. How much more, and for what purposes? And if federal lands are eventually moved over to state management, will their ownership follow similar patterns?