Sawmill owner Marc Brinkmeyer doesn’t want to be tagged as the guy who cut down a grove of ancient cedars.
Forest supervisor David Wright hates being seen as the penny pincher who won’t swap public land for Brinkmeyer’s unique property.
Realtor Arlen Olsen, who started the proposed swap four years ago, says stubbornness on both sides jeopardizes a natural treasure.
“It is the Mona Lisa. There is nothing else like it,” Olsen said of the cedar grove.
While he’s no longer involved in the deal, Olsen is keen to see it work. “I want to see this in public ownership.”
Whether that happens may well be decided by Oct. 15.
Having turned down one offer from Brinkmeyer, the U.S. Forest Service gave him until then to make another.
What if no swap occurs? If the agency still wants the land, it must come up with millions to buy it. And Brinkmeyer must be willing to take cash.
Both are long shots.
The players are reluctant to speak about the land swap for fear of jeopardizing it.
A lot is at stake. There’s the 520 acres at Upper Priest Lake, with its rare wildlife habitat and incomparable timber. There’s 2,800 acres of forest land southeast of Coeur d’Alene, which is a big chunk of what the Idaho Panhandle National Forests can use to swap for sensitive lands.
Also hanging in the balance are public opinion, jobs, reputations, egos and real estate commissions.
All eyes are on Brinkmeyer, the 50-year-old firebrand who owns Riley Creek Lumber Co.
He’s a hard bargainer who needs a steady source of trees to feed his high-tech sawmill east of Priest River. The mill, which pulled out of a bankruptcy tailspin in 1987, now employs 145 people.
In 1992, Brinkmeyer borrowed money to buy the cedar grove from Plum Creek Timber Co. He expected to quickly swap it for Forest Service land to add to his 15,000-acre holdings.
Neither he nor Plum Creek will say what he paid. But by all accounts, it was a great deal that got even better as the value of cedar doubled. The worth of the mixed-species trees on the Forest Service land increased, too.
An appraiser was hired. Neither side was happy with his figures.
“We think their land is overpriced,” Brinkmeyer said. “They think our land is.”
In August, Wright turned down Brinkmeyer’s proposal to swap. He said it was not in the public interest to give up so much land to protect the cedar grove. That left people wondering what higher priorities Wright might have.
“If this isn’t good enough, what is?” asked Joe Hinson of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.
Wright won’t answer that question, saying he promised not to talk publicly about issues related to the Upper Priest deal. But he defended his decision to turn down the recent offer.
“I do not have the leeway to say any piece of property is so unbelievable that we’ll pay any price for it,” he said.
Wright said he’s only had one or two calls complaining that the deal fell through, and doesn’t like being portrayed in editorials as miserly when he’s just following the law.
The law says the Forest Service must pay fair market value. It doesn’t allow Wright to dicker. Once the appraiser said how much land the government would have to give up for those 520 acres, the supervisor could only accept or reject the proposed swap.
What he can do now is consider a different proposal.
In another week, Brinkmeyer and his board of directors will decide what to offer next.
One option involves cutting some trees in order to reduce the value of the property and make it something the Forest Service can afford. Brinkmeyer said he would target cedars under 30 inches in diameter.
Those trees would be small enough for his own mill to process. They’d also be two or three times larger than most cedars harvested these days.
“I’m not eager to do it,” Brinkmeyer said, though he added that he would enjoy the challenge of logging in the sensitive area.
He would show it can be done right, he said. He’d hire a team of experts to make sure the environment was protected. He’d capture it all on videotape.
“It’s not going to be a major hit,” he said, leaning over the rosewood conference table in his office. “I’m not going to be tagged as the guy who cut the monarchs.”
The monarchs are the biggest cedars, the ones up to 10 feet around. Brinkmeyer talks about stepping under their soaring, lacy branches and feeling the summer temperature drop 30 degrees.
Brinkmeyer, an accountant and grown-up Iowa farm boy, said he may keep the biggest cluster of those trees and eventually donate them to the public.
Environmentalists scoff at the notion that Brinkmeyer can do any logging and still protect the habitat of grizzly bears, moose, eagles and rare plants.
“You don’t even get a small tree out of the woods without doing a lot of damage,” said Gordon West, the carpenter who heads the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association.
“Moving something so large and heavy as these giant logs … as a former logger, I can’t conceive of how it can be done.”
Hinson, the industry association executive, said it’s possible to log there and protect the landscape. “But it would be impossible to convince a lot of people that what you were doing is right.”
Some folks came unglued when they learned that Riley Creek already has cut three trees just to sample the quality of the wood.
When word of that got out, “the phone rang off the hook” at the local Nature Conservancy office, said staffer Mark Elsbree.
The Conservancy is known for negotiating land deals. Brinkmeyer has declined its help, at least for now.
Elsbree’s group long ago identified the cedar grove as rare habitat worth saving.
“This may not be the best place to showcase good logging practices,” he said.
There are few big pots of cash available to save special places. The Forest Service tried for years to tap one of them, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to buy the cedars.
The remote Panhandle site never rose to the top of that long national list of good causes.
But the agency apparently hasn’t given up hope. Wright called the fund “a viable option.”
Brinkmeyer’s options are closing in. He said he doesn’t think Riley Creek should settle for less money than its property is worth. But he also frets about his reputation.
“It matters a great deal to Marc what people think,” said Hinson.
“He agonizes over this stuff. He told me it woke him up at 3 in the morning.”
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