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Idaho approves land swap with Avista

BOISE - Top Idaho officials enthusiastically agreed Tuesday to a land swap with Avista Corp., trading 120 acres of steeply forested land along Trestle Creek on the east side of Lake Pend Oreille for a slightly larger parcel of gently rolling timber land a few miles away, which would be easier for the state to log.

The Trestle Creek property is so steep - more than 50 percent of the site has slopes of 60 percent or more - that the only way the state can log there is by helicopter. Logging is one of the top ways the state makes money from its state endowment trust lands to fund schools.

The Trestle Creek property also has critical bull trout habitat along the creek, which limits the state’s options there - and that’s why Avista wants it. It’ll be used for a bull trout restoration project that’s part of a 45-year program of fish and wildlife enhancements the utility is funding to offset the impacts of its Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams.

That program was laid out in the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, signed by 39 parties in 2000, including Avista, five Native American tribes, federal agencies, conservation groups and the states of Idaho and Montana. The group meets each year to decide how best to spend the $5 million a year in mitigation funds Avista has pledged throughout the life of its federal license for the two dams.

“We call it a living license,” said Neil Colwell, Avista’s Idaho lobbyist. The group can respond to changing fish and wildlife needs in the region. “We brought everybody to the table,” he said.

Idaho’s state Land Board, which includes the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, superintendent of schools and state controller, voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve the land exchange. The transaction is expected to be finalized and closed next week.

“It’s a good exchange for the state, we think,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “It gets us some timber land that’s not as steep-sloped, and it doesn’t have the environmental concerns. … We got out of that and Avista needed something like that.”

Kate Langford, senior land use planner for the state Department of Lands, said the exchange fits the department’s asset management plan for state endowment land - it lowers management costs and increases prospects for both immediate and sustainable income from the land. Idaho’s state constitution requires endowment trust lands to be managed for maximum long-term financial return; schools are the main beneficiary.

The larger property at Gold Creek, a few miles to the north, has “gently undulating” slopes, good prospects for logging, and “there are no existing environmental issues in the form of stream corridors or special designations,” Langford said. Plus, she said, “It has excellent access.”

That’s a consideration for the endowment’s long-term planning, she said, as it could make the land suitable for development sometime in the future.

As for the Trestle Creek land, Colwell said, “I don’t foresee that we’d ever allow any development in there.” Instead, he said, “The primary purpose is bull trout restoration. … It’s one of those cases where I think it’s a pretty good deal for everybody.”

Avista acquired the Gold Creek property from a third party, Colwell said, specifically to exchange it to the state for the Trestle Creek property. “The state finds it pretty desirable,” he said.

Appraisals found that the Trestle Creek property is worth $615,600, and the Gold Creek property is worth $631,500. The state will pay Avista $15,900 from its land bank fund to equalize the values in the exchange; Avista will turn that payment over to the seller, to whom the utility is paying the value of the state parcel.

“We’re not making money off it,” said Avista spokeswoman Anna Scarlett. “It’s purely about getting land that we can protect that’s bull trout habitat, and getting IDL some land that they can actually use.”

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