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Public input on land trust sought

Fri., June 15, 2007

BOISE – The state Department of Fish and Game plans workshops this summer to identify areas the public wants to see benefit from a proposed land trust aimed at protecting farms, ranches, timberland and wildlife habitat.

The agency on Thursday also released to the Associated Press details of more than 30 “surplus properties” it intends to sell to help create the endowment, which Gov. Butch Otter said last week could total $50 million.

Fish and Game also plans to pay for its “Land Legacy Trust” – modeled after a Wisconsin program – with an unspecified settlement with the Bonneville Power Administration for impacts to Idaho wildlife from federal dams.

Properties on the auction block include several historic ranches that Idaho acquired in the 1940s as it expanded elk and mule deer habitat. Those ranches now lie within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Others are adjacent to land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

Gregg Servheen, Fish and Game’s wildlife program coordinator, said the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, rather than wealthy individuals in search of a few thousand remote acres, are likely candidates to buy many of the properties.

“The majority of the lands, in terms of value, are the backcountry ranches,” Servheen told the AP. “The others are low value. They’re not serving the department very well in terms of resources and they’re problematic in terms of management.”

Congress must approve any Forest Service or BLM transactions, meaning such transfers could take years.

Efforts to reach U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O’Conner in Ogden, Utah, weren’t immediately successful.

Land to be sold ranges from less than two-tenths of an acre in St. Anthony on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River – to 20,000 largely roadless acres called the Snow Peak Wildlife Management Area in the Panhandle National Forest near St. Maries. It’s home to elk, bear, cougar and mountain goats.

Other parcels include 407 acres in the Chamberlain Basin inside the Frank Church Wilderness that include historical cabins, outbuildings and an airstrip at the Stonebreaker ranch. That land was valued at $2.1 million in 2001.

There are also 100 acres along the Salmon River in Lemhi County, 18.5 acres along the Snake River downstream from American Falls and Benewah County’s 1,200-acre St. Maries Wildlife Management Area.

Environmentalists are still concerned about habitat and public access on these parcels, regardless of ownership.

“I want to make sure the public is included in the process,” said John Robison, of the Idaho Conservation League. “The last things we want to see is more no trespassing signs on our favorite fishing holes.”

Otter insists this proposal is aimed at preserving Idaho’s public lands legacy, not ditching public property to make a quick buck for the state.

“We’re looking to sell those to the federal government, not to sell those to private landowners,” Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said of the Frank Church Wilderness inholdings.

The trust could be used to buy conservation easements, which typically limit development but allow the landowners to continue ranching, farming or logging.

Starting in July, Fish and Game plans workshops to identify land Idaho residents want the endowment to help.

A draft plan could be ready by fall, to go before the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in January 2008, Servheen said.

His agency has already tentatively identified some areas of Idaho that could merit protection, including Clearwater River watersheds where bull trout spawn, the Bear Lake Basin in eastern Idaho that’s home to trumpeter swans, bunchgrass stands in Hells Canyon and the largely privately owned Palouse Prairie, an area Fish and Game calls “the most imperiled ecosystem in Idaho.”

“We want to ask, ‘Where are those legacy places you want to protect over the next 25 to 50 years,’ ” Servheen said.


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