The U.S. Forest Service has decided that the cost of saving a grove of ancient cedar trees is too high.
Both the timber industry and environmentalists are urging the agency to reconsider and work out a land swap that would keep chain saws away from the 520 acres at Upper Priest Lake.
“Anybody with two eyes over the age of 6 would have to realize this is an ecologically unique place. It’s also very accessible,” said Ken Kohli, spokesman for the Intermountain Forest Industry Association.
“Most people in the industry would say that’s the kind of place that should be set aside.”
The private land, at the north end of the lake, can be reached by boat and is crossed by a trail that starts and ends on public land.
The land belongs to Riley Creek Timber Co.
Owner Marc Brinkmeyer bought it in 1992 from Plum Creek Timber Co., expecting to trade the acreage for national forest property which he could log.
The Forest Service told Clearwater Realty that it wanted to acquire the cedar grove. The Orofino, Idaho, company specializes in brokering swaps involving public land.
But there were delays. Once both sides were ready to negotiate, the value of the cedar had doubled.
Forest Service supervisor David Wright wrote Clearwater Realty last week, backing out of the deal.
“The cost exceeds the public benefits right now,” he said in a later interview. “It’s way beyond what we feel is fair.”
However, forest officials agreed to meet again this Friday with Brinkmeyer.
“We’re going to ask, ‘What do we have to do to make it acceptable?”’ said Clearwater Realty agent Jim Cochrane.
Brinkmeyer insisted that the trade is going forward.
“We expect to see it completed in December,” he said.
No one would say what the agency is being asked to swap for the cedar grove.
However, a schedule of proposed actions released in July listed 2,037 federal acres to be given up in the exchange. Most are in the Frost Peak area, southeast of Coeur d’Alene. The trees there are of mixed species, which have dropped in value just as the cedar has been rising.
Brinkmeyer wouldn’t discuss the likelihood of cutting the cedars. Others in the industry said he would have no choice but to harvest at least some of them to recoup his investment.
“Not logging is not an option,” said Kohli.
Jim Caddis, who appraised the trees, said the biggest share of the logs would probably go to mills on the West Coast.
“A good-grade cedar is hard to find over there.”
The trees are up to 1,500 years old, maybe more. When Caddis calculated their worth, he never expected the cedars would be cut.
“My personal opinion is it is a really unique place for the public to see,” he said.
Environmentalist Gordon West is troubled that the value of the cedars is computed only in the millions they’d bring.
“It is valuable habitat,” said West, chairman of the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association.
Black bears and grizzlies hang out there in the spring; moose, in the winter. Rare plants and a bald eagle nest have been found on adjacent forest lands.
West predicted public outrage at the sight of logging trucks hauling out giant cedars.
“There will be hell to pay if they cut it. It will be a public relations fiasco.”
Kohli acknowledged concern about image, if the trees are cut. Industry also would like to see unharvested federal lands move into private hands, providing logs for local mills.
Don Howell, retired chief appraiser for the Forest Service, said it’s unusual for the government to swap for such outstanding trees. In other cases, he said, Congress has appropriated the money to buy the land.
Howell was asked to come up with ways to appraise the Upper Priest property when nothing comparable could be found on the market.
“This old-growth red cedar is large, high quality and not typical at all of the Inland Empire,” he said. “Some people on the West Coast say you couldn’t even find it there.”
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