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Possible loss of public lands in N. Idaho criticized

An Arizona developer wants to swap a Boise Foothills ranch for 9,000 acres of federal timberland in the Idaho Panhandle.

The proposed trade enjoys strong support in Southern Idaho, where it would secure public ownership of elk winter range and create nearly 36 contiguous miles of public lands in the foothills, an important wildlife and recreation corridor. But the proposal is attracting criticism in the north, where opponents say the swap would benefit Boise residents at North Idaho’s expense.

Developer M3Communities, a builder of luxury home properties, wants the swap to move through Congress, as opposed to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s administrative process, which can take years to complete. The prospect of fast-tracking the trade has raised additional red flags in North Idaho, since the congressional route provides fewer public input opportunities.

“This is a lose-lose situation,” said Jerry Shriner, of Coeur d’Alene. “If it’s a good idea to acquire (an 11,000-acre ranch) down there, why not come up with some Southern Idaho land to trade for it?”

The North Idaho timberland includes 73 parcels scattered from Bonners Ferry to Grangeville. The deal would shrink North Idaho’s public land base, Shriner said, trading off every parcel currently identified for potential trades. Some popular Lake Coeur d’Alene recreation sites – including Loffs Bay and parts of Blue Creek Bay – were acquired through past BLM land swaps, he noted.

“If another piece of lakefront became available in the north … they’ve lost all flexibility to trade for it,” Shriner said.

Shriner sits on BLM’s 15-member Coeur d’Alene District Resource Advisory Council. Earlier this year, the group sent a letter to BLM’s district manager, recommending that the land swap be subject to full public scrutiny under the agency’s administrative land exchange process. The Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce’s natural resources committee recently drafted a similar letter.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho opposes the proposed swap. Removing the land from federal ownership would abolish the tribe’s hunting and gathering rights on the properties, Jennifer Porter, the tribe’s chairwoman, said in an August letter.

Joe Hinson, an M3 consultant, said the plan’s details are still fluid, and the company is looking for ways to alleviate concerns.

“There’s no stronger political medicine than consensus,” he said. “We would like very much to strike a deal where everyone says, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ ”

M3 initially planned to develop the 11,000-acre ranch, but the company started looking at other options after the real estate market crashed.

Hinson said the ranch’s proximity to other public lands made it a good candidate for a land exchange. If the deal goes through, M3 would sell the timberland it acquires to Idaho Forest Group, a sawmill operator. Idaho Forest Group would log the land, but continue to allow public hunting and fishing access, according to company officials.

M3 tried to find similar-valued lands in Southern Idaho for the exchange, Hinson said. Unfortunately, most of the BLM’s surplus land in Southern Idaho is “high desert, grass and sagebrush,” he said. “No one wants BLM lands in Southern Idaho.”

In North Idaho, meanwhile, BLM had listed the 73 parcels as potentially available for land exchanges, Hinson said.

Stephanie Snook, a BLM spokeswoman, said the agency has just begun reviewing the parcels M3 wants. An early version of the list included the Huckleberry Campground on the St. Joe River, which the agency doesn’t plan to trade off. Several other parcels were part of Sandpoint’s and Bonners Ferry’s municipal watersheds, which BLM wouldn’t trade either, Snook said.

BLM didn’t initiate the exchange proposal – “we’re reacting to it,” she said.

Land exchanges are considered a “discretionary action” by the agency, Snook said. “We don’t have to do them,” and they can be a low priority for the agency’s small pool of real estate specialists, who often have a backload of time-sensitive work, Snook said.

That’s precisely why M3 wants to move the trade through Congress, Hinson said.

“Rightly or wrongly, legislative action has become the favored way to complete land exchanges, because it’s so difficult to get it done through the administrative process,” he said. “The agencies don’t have the time or the money to do land exchanges, so nothing ever happens.”

Hinson said the congressional route would still require a full environmental review, land appraisals and a signoff from Ken Salazar, the Department of Interior’s secretary.

M3 has initiated talks with Idaho’s congressional delegation about introducing legislation. But, “they’re not much interested prior to the (Nov. 2) election,” Hinson said.

Dean Ferguson, U.S Rep. Walt Minnick’s communication director, said it’s premature to discuss the best approach.

“The community has not decided if such an exchange is in northern Idaho’s interest,” Ferguson said in a statement.