Idaho signs deal with Aeon AI firm to value public lands

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

Republican Senator Steve Fick and Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, co-chairs of the federal legislative committee, signed a $250,000 study deal with Aeon AI last month. The Federal Commission deals with issues of state sovereignty.

The contract covers federal lands 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 requires an initial payment of $20,000 to the company, followed by three payments of $35,000 based on meeting specific criteria and a final payment of $125,000.

In return, legislators will receive a land assessment, a planning tool, a visualization dashboard, and a written report. The timetable in the agreement sets a timetable for work to be completed this fall.

Aeon AI says on its website that it uses real estate analytics software to provide real-time land assessments.

About 63% of land in Idaho is federally owned, but local governments cannot collect property tax on that land. A federal program called BILTor pay in lieu of taxes, aims to reduce the loss of those taxes by donating money to government agencies within the country.

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

Last year, the Idaho House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution tasking the commission with figuring out how much money federal public lands would generate in property taxes if they were privately owned. Concurrent decisions do not need the signature of the governor. The decision does not state what the committee should do with the information once it is obtained.

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

Other public land advocates also spoke out against the deal. The $250,000 deal “is not a viable solution or an efficient use of taxpayer money,” Holly Conde, the legislative and land coordinator for the Idaho Conservation Voters, said in a statement to the Idaho Statesman.

Referring to Aeon AI and former Utah legislator Ken Ivory, Conde said, who… has a date Advocating the transfer of federal lands to state control.

Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, told the Idaho Statesman in an email statement that he believes there are significant flaws in potential plans to seek more PILT funding based on the Aeon AI assessment.

PILT payments are made annually by the US Department of the Interior and its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management. The payments also cover federal lands managed 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 this year’s PILT, but the payment amounts have not been finalized.

Payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each province or jurisdiction and the population of those areas.

“This technology that Aeon AI is now getting funding for doesn’t apply at all to how PILT is calculated and, therefore, will not help fund PILT,” Brooks told the statesman, “A quarter of a million dollars is a steep price tag for a bill that basically can’t accomplish what it set out to do.” in achieving it.

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

Brooks said his organization is working with the Idaho delegation to Congress to try to secure more PILT funding for Idaho. But like Oppenheimer, he feared the deal was a step toward trying to privatize his beloved public lands.

“Ultimately, it’s yet another publicly funded campaign of the anti-public mobilization to try to wrest our American right to public land,” Brooks told the Statesman. “Years ago, the argument that their existence was unconstitutional, but they were found to be wrong.”

“When it comes down to it, 90% of Idahoans use public lands and the vast majority support them, According to the latest poll conducted by the College of ColoradoBrooks added. “Switching from attacking public lands to helping manage it would be a better use of time and money.”

Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman reporter contributed.

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