A lobbyist for Trident Holdings pitched a piece of legislation that would make changes to how the Idaho Dept. of Lands would evaluate land swaps — like the one Trident proposed around McCall.
Trident hoped to trade 26 square miles of land around McCall and Payette Lake into private hands in exchange for timber assets in North Idaho.
Brody Aston with Westerberg and Associates, who has filed to lobby for Trident, introduced the draft legislation Wednesday in the House Resources & Conservation Committee. It is numbered HB 587.
“The purpose of this statute is to increase the state endowment’s long-term financial returns (through) a transparency and accountability in the management practices employed by the Idaho Department of Lands and to ensure appropriate capabilities to expertly manage the endowment within the department staff,” Aston told committee members.
The legislation would create a new ombudsman position for the Idaho Department of Lands.
The position, to be appointed by the governor, would “ensure new department hires have significant industry experience,” hire and fire private legal counsel, hire and fire outside experts for leases, sales, and land exchanges, and other duties.
In addition, the new position would deal directly with land exchange proposals – like the one Trident put forward to move the bulk of endowment land around McCall into private control.
“All land exchange applications shall be evaluated by the ombudsman and, where any application for exchange exceeds ten thousand… acres, an appraisal shall be mandatory, with the appraiser or other outside evaluation experts selected and overseen by the ombudsman.”
The language says the ombudsman would then forward on the appraisal and other information to the land board, which would still have final discretion over land swaps.
Echoes Williams’ stance
Trident principal Alec Williams told the Idaho Land Board last fall that he felt the agency should have conducted an appraisal on the endowment land to evaluate the swap. The Idaho Dept. of Lands denied Trident’s application last summer. It said, among other things, that the value of timberland it hoped to buy in North Idaho for the trade was worth $292 million less than the McCall area land it wants to take possession of.
Williams also said the Department of Lands conducted its review of his proposal with “bias,” and appealed both to a judge and to the Land Board and a judge for a petition of judicial review. The Land Board turned back Williams’ appeal attempt, and the judicial review litigation is still pending.
If the Trident-backed legislation ultimately became law, it could change the process for swaps like the one the firm hopes to put forward. The Idaho Land Board in its current form did not seem receptive to the proposal in the hearing last fall and voted unanimously to deny the appeal, but each of the seats is up for election this fall, which could potentially change the voting members of the committee — and ultimately the fate of the proposal if it were resubmitted under new rules.
The bill was introduced by the Resources & Conservation committee on a voice vote. It is expected to come up for a public hearing and a committee vote in the coming days. If it gets enough votes in committee, it will move to the House floor. The process would then repeat on the Senate side of the building before could possibly land on Governor Brad Little’s desk.