Idaho lawmakers rent agency to appraise federal public lands, worrying conservationists

BOISE, Idaho — This article was originally written by Keith Ridler of the Associated Press Nicole Blanchard of the Idaho Statesman.

Idaho lawmakers have hired a Utah company to appraise federal land in three counties to determine how much tax revenue the land would generate if it was privately owned and subject to property taxes.

Republican Sen. Steve Vick and Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Committee on Federalism, signed the $250,000 deal for the study with Aeon AI last month. The Federalism Committee deals with state sovereignty issues.

The contract covers federal land in three of Idaho’s 44 counties — Boundary County in northern Idaho, Canyon County in southwestern Idaho and Clearwater County in north-central Idaho.

The deal with Aeon AI calls for an initial payment to the company of $20,000, followed by three payments of $35,000 based on meeting specific criteria and a final payment of $125,000. Lawmakers in return will get a land valuation, a planning tool, a visualization dashboard and a written report. The timeline in the agreement lays out a schedule for the work to be completed this fall.

Aeon AI on its website says it uses real estate analytic software to provide real-time land valuations.

About 63% of the land in Idaho is federally owned, but local governments can’t collect property tax on that land. A federal program called PILT, or payment in lieu of taxes, is aimed at reducing the loss of those taxes by giving money to government entities within the state.

Some Idaho lawmakers have said that the state should get more than it has historically received from the federal government and that the results from the Aeon AI appraisal could bolster that argument.

The Idaho House and Senate last year passed a concurrent resolution tasking the committee with finding out how much money the federal public land would generate in property taxes if privately owned. Concurrent resolutions don’t need a signature from the governor. The resolution doesn’t say what the committee should do with the information after it has it.

Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said he didn’t see much value in the report and said there was a risk it could be used as a club to try to privatize public lands.

“Part of the reason we are seeing such growth in the West is accessibility to these public lands,” he said. “If there is more pressure to sell off or privatize public lands, it will have a negative impact on these growing communities.”

Other public land advocates also spoke out against the deal. Hollie Conde, Legislative and Lands Coordinator for Conservation Voters of Idaho, said in a statement to the Idaho Statesman that the $250,000 deal “is not a workable solution or an effective use of taxpayer money.”

“We are disappointed in the decision of the Committee on Federalism to contract Aeon AI with appraisal services, especially given the company’s ties to well-known anti-public land advocates,” Conde said, referencing Aeon AI and former Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who has a history of advocating for the transfer of federal lands to state control.

Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, told the Idaho Statesman in an emailed statement that he thinks there are major flaws in potential plans to demand more PILT funding based on Aeon AI’s appraisal.

The PILT payments are made annually by the U.S. Department of the Interior and its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management. The payments also cover federal lands administered by the Forest Service and other agencies.

Idaho received $34.5 million in PILT payments last year. President Joe Biden in March signed an appropriations bill that included full funding for PILT this year, but payment amounts have not been finalized.

The payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each county or jurisdiction and the population of those areas.

“This tech that Aeon AI is now getting funding for is not at all applicable to how PILT is calculated and therefore, will not help with PILT funding,” Brooks told the Statesman “A quarter million dollars is a hefty price tag for a bill that cannot fundamentally accomplish what it set out to accomplish.”

U.S. lawmakers have at times criticized the PILT program and its payments as being insufficient or undependable, jeopardizing the ability of rural areas to pay for law enforcement, firefighting and other essential services.

Brooks said his organization is working with Idaho’s congressional delegation to try to secure more PILT funding for Idaho. But like Oppenheimer, he worried the deal could be a step toward trying to privatize beloved public lands.

“Ultimately, it’s another publicly funded campaign for the anti-public land crowd to try to take away our American birthright of public lands,” Brooks told the Statesman. “Years ago it was the argument that their existence was unconstitutional, but they were found wrong.”

“When it comes down to it, 90% of Idahoans use public lands and the vast majority support them, according to the latest Colorado College poll,” Brooks added. “Pivoting from attacking public lands to helping in their management would be a better use of time and money.”

Idaho Statesman reporter Nicole Blanchard contributed.