BOISE – Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart stole timber from state land to build his log home in Athol in 1996, according to court documents, and still hasn’t paid a judgment against him for the theft. What’s more, the property Hart illegally logged is school endowment land, meaning the timber there is supposed to benefit Idaho’s public schools.
Hart contended then – and still does today – that a loophole in state law allowed him, as a citizen, to cut and take the logs, totaling nearly 8,000 board feet of timber. But three court rulings found that argument not only wrong but unreasonable and “frivolous.” In court documents, the state called Hart’s conduct “a blatant, unjustified trespass on state endowment land that resulted in a substantial loss to the state’s school endowment fund.”
Hart, whose only opponent for a fourth House term this November is a write-in candidate, did forfeit a $5,000 bond he had to put up for his last appeal in the case. And he may have made a partial payment for attorney fees; state records are unclear. But liens against Hart filed in Kootenai County by the Idaho Department of Lands for $22,827 were never lifted – and now they’re not enforceable, because more than five years has passed since the judgment.
Idaho’s school endowment lands are required by the state constitution to be managed for maximum long-term returns for public schools.
Hart said, “I think those logs got paid for several times over.”
The original value of the logs he took from school endowment lands near Spirit Lake was $2,443, but under state law, the penalty for stealing state endowment timber is “treble damages,” or three times the value of the logs – $7,328.
Hart also was ordered to pay administrative costs the state spent to determine the value of the stolen logs as well as the state’s attorney fees and court costs after he fought the case three times over five years, all the way to the state Court of Appeals. Those costs total $15,500.
“There was a taking of timber that belonged to the schoolchildren. It needs to be repaid,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “That debt is valid. It’s a moral obligation, even if we don’t have the ability to go after it and collect it. It’s a debt owed to the schoolchildren.”
Hart argued in court – first with an attorney, and then in his two appeals representing himself – that Idaho’s state Forest Practices Act had a loophole. The act, which regulates logging on private and public lands, exempted from a notification requirement the noncommercial taking of timber for personal use. That clause has since been reworded.
“It was something that was commonly done throughout Idaho history,” Hart told The Spokesman-Review. “I had been told by actually a couple of different people in the logging industry that this was at least a historical practice.”
However, as the Idaho Court of Appeals wrote in its ruling, “The fact the (Forest Practices Act) rules did not require Hart to give notice to the (Idaho Department of Lands) before stealing state timber does not mean that he was authorized to take it.”
The Appeals Court judges added, “We think it important to recognize that the cutting of timber on state lands is a crime.”
Hart argued in court that he was prompted to go after the state endowment timber because a logger, whose name he couldn’t remember, told him it was legal. He said a relative of the logger had confirmed that with a state legislator.
That logger “had many times in the course of his life … used trees for his own personal use,” Hart told The Spokesman-Review. “It was a standard practice years ago, and there are a number of old-timers in the logging industry that, how should I say this, that had participated in that kind of a practice … until, I guess, recently.”
Hart added, “I know the Forest Service actually does have a program where folks do that on a regular basis, because I know some people who have even in the last few years accessed the federal program.” He also added, “The Forest Practices Act says that one of its goals is to harmonize state and federal policy, and it’s absolutely plain in black and white at the federal level that this is an ongoing practice.”
Though the U.S. Forest Service does have various permit programs that allow people to take Christmas trees, firewood and other items from Forest Service land, that can only be done under permit terms, and payment is required. If someone just went into the forest and cut and took logs, “that would be charged as timber theft,” said Jay Kirchner, forest public affairs officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests in Coeur d’Alene.
The one exception: The Panhandle forests have a standing order that people can gather firewood within walking distance of their campsite for use at that campsite without first getting a permit.
On April 16, 1996, a neighbor of state endowment lands near Spirit Lake heard machinery operating on the state land, and when she went to investigate, the noise stopped. She got a license plate number from a red pickup she saw parked there and called police, according to records obtained by The Spokesman-Review under the Idaho Public Records Law.
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department investigated and in August that year reached the former owner of the truck, who reported she had sold it in March to Hart, and that he had mentioned to her that he was building a log home.
Investigators found Hart’s building permit and, in September 1996, went to his home construction site in Athol, where they found the missing logs. Tire tracks on a tractor at the site matched tracks found at the site of the theft, and a number of the logs were matched to the original stumps on the state land.
When sheriff’s investigators interviewed Hart, he told them he knew he’d taken the logs from state land. The investigation report said Hart “stated there is an Idaho code which allows a person to cut logs from state lands to build one’s personal residence.”
After several more contacts with Hart and state authorities, the sheriff’s office turned the case over to prosecutors.
Hart said if the state doesn’t allow citizens to cut state endowment-owned trees for their personal use, it should. “I think there should be a program for it,” he said. “I think that the people of Idaho ought to benefit from the lands.”
Idaho’s state school endowment lands are specifically for the benefit of public schools, and logging on those lands is the main source of revenue they generate. This year, Idaho’s schools got $53 million from the state endowment, which included an extra $22 million payment authorized by the state Land Board to help schools cope with a sharp cut in their state general fund appropriation.