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SB 1243: Grazing Permits — 2024

Summary: SB 1243 would create a new "Grazing Permit" on state lands, exempting these new permits from the Idaho Constitution's public auction requirements.

ICL's position: Oppose

Current Bill Status: Law

Issue Areas: Grazing, Idaho Department of Lands, Public Lands

Official Legislative Site

Sen. Mark Harris (R-Soda Springs) introduced Senate Bill 1243 to establish “grazing permits” on state endowment lands, if the lands are received from the federal government via a land exchange consummated after Jan. 1, 2019. The bill attempts to exempt these “grazing permits” from public auction in what would appear to be a violation of the Idaho Constitution. 

For federal land grazing permits, federal agencies must consider how multiple uses are affected (including water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreation), the grazing fees are set at a national level, and no public auction is required. Leases on state endowment lands are substantially different from permits on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service. Per the Idaho Constitution, state lands are required to “maximize long term financial returns” for the beneficiaries (public schools, universities, prisons, and others designated beneficiaries). State grazing leases, along with timber, cottage site, and other land sales can only be offered via a public auction in order to meet this constitutional requirement.

While state leases go under auction every 20 years and grazing fees are higher than on federal lands, the state does not have to go through the same level of environmental reviews for water quality and wildlife and are not subject to litigation on these grounds.

Under current Idaho law, if the federal government exchanges land with the State of Idaho, any federal “grazing permits” transition to state “grazing leases” and are to be made available at public auction, after the term of the federal grazing lease expires.

In 2001, Idaho Attorney General Al Lance made clear that the public auction requirements applied to all lands acquired by the state from the federal government, not just those granted at the time of statehood. According to the AG’s opinion, “[t]he 1982 amendment broadened the terms of art. 9, sec. 8, so that it would apply not only to lands granted to the state by the federal government, but also to all lands “acquired” from the federal government.”

So what’s the backstory

In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the State of Idaho finalized a land exchange in the Owyhee Land Exchange. The exchange was supported by the State of Idaho, the BLM, and the local collaborative group, known as the Owyhee Initiative. It allowed for the consolidation of scattered state sections within the Owyhee Wilderness areas, increasing efficiencies for the state and financial support for beneficiaries, and helped make wilderness areas whole with benefits for bighorn sheep and sage-grouse.

The thing is, ranchers had every opportunity to remove their leased lands from the exchange. Under Idaho law, “no exchanges shall be made involving leased lands except upon written agreement of the lessee.” Ranchers concerned with the exchange were able to remove sections from the exchange and maintain the status quo. According to the BLM’s environmental analysis, “the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) removed approximately 10,200 acres of State land from the exchange in response to concerns expressed by potentially affected grazing permittees and lessees.”

The affected ranchers had every opportunity to remove their leased lands from the exchange and remain under BLM permits with no auction. SB 1243 appears to be a second bite at the apple for a couple ranchers who would like the benefits of having a state permit (where there aren’t the same BLM laws or legal challenges to worry about) but don’t want to comply with Idaho’s constitutional requirements.

The basis for all land exchanges is a fair, open, and transparent trade that is in the best interest for all partiesthe public, the state, and beneficiaries. In our view, a deal is a deal, fair is fair, and we are concerned about changing the terms of the deal after the fact. Senate Bill 1243 would seem to benefit a select few, leaving Idahoans with less than they were promised.