This past month, the Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League released a year-long study alleging that between 1890 and 1987, a five-member committee (that included the governor) violated Idaho’s constitution by illegally selling hundreds of thousands of acres to well-connected businesses and citizens.
When Idaho entered the Union in 1890, the federal government gave the new state millions of acres in “endowment” land — parcels to be leased or sold for funding public institutions. In the name of financing public schools and universities, Idaho officials set the lifetime cap at 160 acres in 1890 and expanded it to 320 acres in 1916.
After looking through some 35,000 sale records from Idaho state archives, the Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League discovered that between 1890 and 1987, the State Board of Land Commissioners — which is composed of Idaho’s governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state controller and the superintendent of public instruction — continually sold plots of endowment land to 300 individuals and businesses who had exceeded the constitutional acreage limit.
Of the 919,914 endowment acres sold during that stretch, the illegally purchased land tallied over 22 percent — more than 200,000 acres. Though the last illegal sales occurred in 1987, some of the transactions concluded in the last few years. For example, a 1975 purchase was finalized in 2015.
It’s unclear whether the SBLC knew they were violating the constitution, but many of the purchasers were wealthy and influential. According to Idaho Reports, an arm of Idaho Public Television, “the primary beneficiaries were some of Idaho’s most politically connected families and corporations.” The board documented each transaction, but didn’t cross-reference each sale to ensure the buyers hadn’t already reached the constitutional limit. Basically, it was an honor system.
“Currently [Idaho Department of Lands] processes require purchasers to sign an affidavit verifying the purchase will not result in the purchaser owning lands in excess of the acreage limitations found in the Idaho Constitution,” wrote Tom Schultz, the Idaho Department of Lands' current director, in a February 21 statement. Schultz added that the SBLC will institute a cross-reference system for future transactions.
“In some ways, Idaho is still the wild west,” says Stephen Miller, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho. "I think that people in positions of power [in Idaho] sometimes come to believe that their constituents don’t care about these decisions. It sounds crazy, but the rules are only as good as the enforcement. Even if something is unconstitutional, it doesn’t matter if no one enforces it.”
In a joint statement, the Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League note that these revelations are “…a telling sign of what we could expect in the future if public lands were given to the State of Idaho: Private interests are acquiring large parcels of land, and the public has lost access for camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and other recreation.”
The memo points out that Idaho’s State Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prioritize selling off state land to private individuals and businesses. This exposure of illegal public land management comes at a moment when many Western states are calling on Washington to cede ownership of federal land.
For many in the West, state’s rights are often more personal philosophy than political ideology. A few zealous residents subscribe to the sovereign citizen movement and disregard federal law entirely — Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his son, Oregon rancher Ammon Bundy, for example — but most governors and state legislators argue that federal land should be handed over for the sake of efficient management.
In January the Republican-majority Congress passed a measure that re-categorizes all federal-to-state land transfers as “cost-free,” a bit of legislative jujitsu that would, in part, speed the handover process. Just last week, Nevada’s Republican senators introduced a bill calling for the federal government to turn over 7.2 million acres by the end of 2019.
In Miller’s opinion, the federal-to-state land-transfer crusade is just an expression of a bigger social movement. “When constitutional provisions go unenforced, when the state sells endowment lands for less than their highest and best use, when people want federal land returned to states — it’s part of a larger distrust of the federal government,” he says. “Somewhere along the way, the West’s individualistic spirit turned into an anti-government spirit.”