Idaho Officials Looking To Buy U.S. Forest Service Land

Feb 21, 2017

Idaho officials are in preliminary discussions with the U.S. Forest Service on possibly buying federal public lands.

State Forester David Groeschl of the Idaho Department of Lands told Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and other members of the Idaho Land Board on Tuesday that the state is eyeing timberland that the federal agency has previously proposed for possible sale or exchange.

Groeschl said the state is also identifying potential Forest Service lands not previously considered for sale.

"It is a longshot," Groeschl said after the meeting, noting the Forest Service would have to go through its planning process and could even require U.S. lawmakers to take action.

"We want to keep our options open, whether it's private, state or even potentially federal lands," Groeschl said.

The U.S. Forest Service didn't immediately respond to phone messages from The Associated Press.

Idaho received 3.65 million acres of endowment land at statehood in 1890 that generates money, mainly for public schools. The state has about 2.44 million acres left, and the Land Board has a constitutional responsibility to manage that land to maximize financial returns over the long term.

In recent years, the Land Board has been selling residential cottage sites and commercial real estate holdings. The cottage sites proved problematic in the Land Board's constitutional requirement to maximize profits, and the commercial real estate caused fierce criticism of some Land Board members amid concerns the state was unfairly competing with private businesses.

In May, the board adopted a new strategic reinvestment plan calling for using money from the sale of commercial real estate and residential cottage sites to buy resource-producing lands, meaning timberland and farmland. So far, the board has been more interested in timberland.

"I think we're probably better, in my experience, at operating timberland than we are farms," Otter said after the meeting.

Currently, the Land Board has about $73 million available to buy land, and is expected once all the sales of cottage sites and commercial real estate are finished to have about $160 million.

The Land Board also discussed a potential obstacle to buying private timberland and farmland in a bill in the state Senate that would require state agencies get permission from county commissioners to purchase land. That means county commissioners could prevent the Idaho Department of Lands from buying land as directed by the Land Board.

"I'm concerned about that," Otter said. "This has never come up before where the counties or the cities would exercise a veto power over the acquisition of any agency of the state."

County commissions have generally expressed concern that losing private land to public entities means taking land off tax rolls.

During the meeting, Otter asked Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, also a board member, "How can we override the Constitution with a statute?"

"We can't" Wasden said.

The bill is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

It also isn't clear that enough private timberland will become available on which to spend the $160 million, which Groeschl said could buy about 100,000 acres.

The Land Board has five years from when money is deposited into the land bank to spend it. Unspent money would transfer to the permanent fund where it would be managed by the Idaho Endowment Fund Investment Board.