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The impact, not the numbers

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Last May, I wrote about a report from the Wilderness Society contending that since statehood, 41 percent of the “endowment” lands Idaho originally received from the federal government had been sold.

A couple of weeks later, the Department of Lands wrote to take issue with the Society’s numbers, especially with the 41 percent figure – the correct figure would have been about a third. Since the reply was widely disseminated in news stories at the time, and since the numbers differ largely on the relatively technical basis of what you choose to include or not, I didn’t return to it in a later column because whether the amount was 41 percent or 33 percent, it still was a lot. The Society’s basic point, that a lot of land had been sold off, appeared to remain, though no fine point was put on its implications.

Last week, another shoe dropped, this one less about the numbers than about the meaning of the transactions. This came in the form of new research from the Society and the Idaho Conservation League that, in their words, “reveal what appear to be widespread violations of the Idaho constitutional limit on how much land the State Land Board can sell to private parties. The new findings further deflate claims by public land takeover advocates that Idaho citizens won’t be locked out of their forests and recreation lands if they are given to the state. The sales in question span nearly a century, from statehood in 1890 until sales in the 1980s.”

That makes them pertinent indeed. As the groups also pointed out, “The Idaho Legislature is also considering a measure (Senate Bill 1065) from Senator Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens) that requires all state agencies to prioritize privatization of state lands.”

And the response this time from the Department of Lands was a little different. Director Tom Schultz released a statement saying, “At this time I am not prepared to concur with or dispute the conclusions reached by the Wilderness Society. Even though no discrepancies have been identified over the past 30 years, I intend to hire an independent auditor to review IDL’s records and advise the Land Board on its findings. 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.”

(The department did point out that there appear to have been no instances of such sales in at least the last 30 years or so.)

Because it had to fulfill detailed information requests from the environmental groups some time ago, the department has been aware for a while this question has been pursued. If it had an easy response to the allegation, it would have offered it. By assigning the case to an independent auditor, the declaration of problematic sales (assuming the groups’ research is on track) would come from a non-state employee, which would be a little easier for everyone on the state side to swallow.

What this suggests is that the allegation, of regular extra-constitutional land sales to private parties across much of Idaho’s history, has a good chance of holding up.

What if anything will be done about it is another question, further down the road.

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