For the week of April 7, 1999  thru April 13, 1999  

State high court hands Land Board a defeat

Anti-Marvel bill, amendment struck down

Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Supreme Court handed the State Land Board a significant defeat Friday, denying the board, in two decisions, the power to give ranchers preference in granting leases of School Endowment Fund lands.

The decisions are a victory for Hailey conservationist Jon Marvel, who has sought to obtain those leases for environmental protection purposes. Marvel called the state Supreme Court’s decisions "another nail in the coffin of the good-old-boy policy of the West."

The Land Board manages 2.5 million acres of Idaho School Endowment Fund land, and in selling or leasing the holdings, it earns money that goes to the state’s schools. Schools currently receive around $50 million a year from the endowment fund.

Under the so-called "Anti-Marvel" law of 1995, the state Legislature directed the Land Board to give ranchers and the cattle industry preference in lease auctions, on the grounds that they add to the state’s economy and therefore help schools in the long run.

Since 1993, Marvel and his Idaho Watersheds Project repeatedly outbid ranchers in the auctions, but has never been awarded a lease. Under state law, the Land Board has discretion to award a lease to a lower bidder.

With the passage of the "Anti-Marvel" law, Marvel was eliminated from the lease-bidding process.

However, the state Supreme Court ruled that the 1995 law was unconstitutional on the grounds that the state constitution directs School Endowment Fund lands to be managed solely for the benefit of Idaho’s schools, rather than for Idaho’s economy as a whole.

Thirty-eight grazing auctions were sent back to the Land Board to be re-auctioned.

The court also shot down a constitutional amendment that had been approved by a 64-percent majority in the November 1998 election. It was slated to go into effect in 2000.

The Supreme Court justices struck down the amendment based on a technical problem—that the ballot measure contained two questions rather than one, in violation of the state constitution, which requires each question to be voted on separately.

The first question dealt with how endowment-land proceeds could be invested. The Land Board had been required to put proceeds directly into the endowment fund, but the overturned amendment would have allowed it to re-invest those funds in other parcels for two years.

The second amended section stipulated that only sales of land, and not leases, be required to be put up for auction.

It is the second amendment that Marvel objected to.

Laird Lucas, attorney for the Land and Water fund of the Rockies, a nonprofit group representing the Idaho Watersheds Project, contended in an interview that the Land Board initiated the amendment as a response to Marvel’s appeal of the 1995 law.

"They tried to sneak in a removal of the requirement for auctioning the leases as part of this land-bank proposal," Lucas said.

Lucas said the big question now is whether the Land Board will stop its "pattern of discrimination" in denying leases to the Idaho Watersheds Project. He said the board can grant a lease to someone other than the highest bidder, but it must have good reasons for doing so.

Through the Idaho Watersheds Project, Marvel leases what he feels are overgrazed lands to allow them to heal. He is especially concerned about, and therefore targets, wetlands. These practices have landed him in hot water with Idaho’s ranching communities.

Marvel describes Idaho as a land where agriculture dictates public policy.

He said his efforts and the court’s responses to them are "part of an ongoing change in how power is distributed in the West."


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