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Sports >  Outdoors

What are Idaho’s public lands worth? Lawmakers aim to find out – and to get U.S. to pay

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley, Idaho, is seen during June 2012.  (Darin Oswald)
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Stanley, Idaho, is seen during June 2012. (Darin Oswald)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – It’s hard to quantify the worth of Idaho’s public lands, so popular for outdoor activities from hunting and fishing to hiking and bird watching.

But state legislators hope to put a price tag on the 32 million acres of Idaho that the federal government manages.

Idaho lawmakers last week advanced a resolution whose sponsor claims it could bring more money to rural Idaho. Critics argue the resolution won’t work and would waste millions in taxpayer dollars and threaten public lands.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, presented Feb. 25 to the House Resources and Conservation Committee a resolution calling on the state Federalism Committee to study the value of Idaho’s public lands. The Federalism Committee, made up of 10 Idaho legislators, monitors the impact of federal legislation on Idaho.

Horman said the study would be used to inform Congress of the value of federally managed lands in the hopes of increasing funding from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program. PILT compensates states with money to offset the loss of property taxes in areas with a large concentration of federal public lands.

Horman said 63% of all land in Idaho is federally managed. Last year, Idaho received $33.7 million in PILT payments, down from a high of $36 million in 2018.

“… When the federal government controls that much of our land, as our population density increases on the remaining part of that land, it’s no wonder our property taxes are skyrocketing,” Horman said.

According to the resolution, the state Federalism Committee would use “pilot technologies providing an objective standard to evaluate and appraise federal lands in real time to determine the fair taxable reimbursement value of federal lands.”

“There’s new technology available to be able to analyze the lands and then be able to make informed requests,” Horman said. “Not just, ‘We want more money,’ but here are the valuations of why we think that this fulfills the obligation the federal government made.”

Federal payments consider acres, population, CPI

The PILT program does not consider taxable value as part of its payments. Disbursements vary due to a funding model based on factors including eligible acreage, county population and the Consumer Price Index.

The study could cost up to $250,000 to be paid out of Idaho’s general fund.

It’s the second year in a row that this idea has been introduced in the Idaho Legislature. The issue sparked controversy during the 2020 legislative session when former Utah lawmaker Ken Ivory spoke to the Federalism Committee on the use of software to assess the value of federal lands in his home state.

Ivory works for Aeon AI, the tech company that is assessing the value of public lands in Washington County, Utah. Ivory is also known for advocating that the federal government transfer public lands to state ownership.

Though Ivory did not speak on this year’s measure, his name has continued to be associated with the proposal.

“There’s concern that this is related specifically to one company, but I want to assure you that this will go to an RFP (request for proposal) process, and any eligible company or group is able to be responsive to an RFP that’s put out by the Federalism Committee,” Horman said.

Critics of the resolution say they can agree with Horman on one thing – the PILT program is flawed.

“There are legitimate problems with PILT,” said Hollie Conde, legislative and public lands coordinator for Conservation Voters of Idaho, during public testimony Thursday. “Prior to 2008, the program was not always fully funded. The purse strings are tied in different places to ineffective metrics. The whole program is overly complicated, and because it’s administrated by the federal government, it is clunky and slow.”

Conde claims studies ‘never amount to anything’

But presenting Congress with a valuation doesn’t ensure the program will change, Conde said. She cited numerous similar studies in other states that “never amount to anything” and questioned whether Horman has worked with Idaho’s congressional delegation to ensure a path forward in Congress.

“Spending a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer money will not help to reform PILT,” Conde said. “… PILT needs a national solution, not a state study.”

Blaine County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, who is on public lands committee of the Idaho Association of Counties, also testified in opposition of the resolution. Like Conde, Greenberg said he didn’t see the study having any sway with Congress. He also said he worried it could open the door to privatization of public lands.

The Resources and Conservation Committee moved to send the resolution to the floor with a “do pass” recommendation, with three legislators voting in opposition.

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