LEWISTON - The director of the Idaho Department of Lands says he'll hire an independent auditor to review the agency's records involving decades-old sales of state lands that two environmental groups say violated Idaho's Constitution.
"That's a question that we've asked is how is this possible that these lands could've been sold in excess of the Idaho Constitution," said Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League.
Tom Schultz told the Lewiston Tribune in a story on Wednesday that he'll advise the Idaho Land Board on the findings.
The Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League using information obtained through a public records request say the state may have illegally sold about 200,000 acres of state land because the sales violated limits set in the Idaho Constitution.
The most recent of the sales occurred in 1987.
The environmental groups say the sales call into question claims by some lawmakers that states wouldn't sell off federal public lands if they were turned over to states.
"It was very clear that the framers of the constitution wanted to prevent exactly this thing," said Oppenheimer. "They wanted to prevent powerful, influential interest from having access to state lands and buying up too many of those lands. There are concerns that if the federal government were to transfer some of those lands to Idaho that there would be high risk that they would be sold."
Schultz issued the following statement on Wednesday:
"The Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) has compiled historic records of land sales since statehood in response to a recent public records request. That request included acreage and names of purchasers of endowment lands. We understand that the Wilderness Society has identified instances where it initially appears that the state may have sold land in excess of allowable acres to individual parties, although the precise history of those transactions is unclear and open to interpretation. 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. We continue to analyze our processes and make improvements to our procedures as needed to provide greater levels of certainty.
"Currently IDL’s 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. IDL is also working on a procedure to cross-reference names prior to selling any endowment lands, to make sure the purchase does not exceed constitutional limitations.
"In the release by the Wilderness Society, they point to their analysis as an indication as to why the public should be leery of state management and control over federal lands. To be clear, the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners and Idaho Department of Lands have not advocated for the state takeover of federal lands. Instead the Board has directed the IDL to cooperate with federal agencies in the suppression of wildfires and in the management of federal timber lands through the use of Good Neighbor Authority. We feel that Idaho’s federal, state, and private lands are best served when the state assists its partners in providing advice or resources to aid in the active management of range, timber, wildlife, and water resources across the state."