Letters From the West

State attorney undercuts Idaho land transfer argument

Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack

Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack

The legal argument underlying the House resolution and Utah law demanding federal land transfer to states was examined by two attorneys before Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee. They did not give the committee much support to follow Utah’s lead and put up $3 million to back their demand in court.

Donald Kochan, a Chapman Law professor from California, said Idaho’s assurance it would not make further claims on federal land at statehood, written into the constitution, does not mean the federal government does not have a contractual responsibility to dispose of the land within state borders.

He said further study is necessary to examine how Idaho constitution delegates viewed the compact the state and the federal government had made. But he said critics of the Utah argument overstate the strength of their case.

“The meaning of (the U.S. Constitution’s) property clause is at the core of the debate,” he said.

Idaho Assistant Attorney General Steve Strack quickly cleared up that the Idaho delegates did not view the federal compact as Kochan suggested. In many references, delegates referred to the more than 3 million acres of land that were transferred to the state for schools as “grants.”

Delegates also supported the establishment of forest reserves, which permanently placed the land under federal control. Judge William Claggett, the chief architect of the Idaho Constitution, also drafted the law that created Yellowstone National Park.

“I do not suppose for a moment that we would ever have control over the public lands of the United States,” said delegate Weldon Heyburn of Wallace.

The Idaho Legislature often criticized the size and placement of forest reserves, but also voted to support additional reserves including the Sawtooth Mountains as a national park in 1917.

“They were more focused on the size of the reserves not that there was a compact the federal government violated,” Strack said.

Idaho also supported the Reclamation Act of 1902, which specifically required the projects would remain under federal ownership. And the Carey Act of 1894 eventually transferred 800,000 acres of federal desert land to private ownership.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West