Elk foundation reverses on land swap in North Idaho
LEWISTON – The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is withdrawing its support of a proposed land swap deal in North Idaho between the U.S. Forest Service and a timber company.
The Missoula-based foundation sent a letter to Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell noting the group’s concerns. Foundation President David Allen said a backlash from members and the proposal’s expansion into elk habitat in Idaho County prompted the group’s change of heart.
“The identified federal exchange lands in Idaho County contain very high-value wildlife habitat, including significant amounts of crucial winter range for elk, which could potentially be compromised,” Allen wrote. “Concern about loss of access, land use changes and habitat alterations in traditional hunting areas have also emerged as serious points of contention.”
Brazell said he’s disappointed in the group’s decision. He said the foundation still supports the agency acquiring the timberland, though the foundation would prefer a purchase agreement rather than the land swap, referred to as the Lochsa Land Exchange.
“We understand they were getting a lot of pressure from their members, we totally understand why they are reluctant to stay involved,” Brazell said. “They are still very supportive of us acquiring the upper Lochsa land and if we end up getting it after our process is done they are still willing to help us get funds to restore it.”
The foundation and Forest Service in 2008 signed a memorandum of understanding about the proposed trade that involved about 18,000 acres of federal land spread over three national forests in Idaho for 40,000 acres of Western Pacific Timber land in the upper Lochsa River basin.
Blake Henning, vice president of lands and conservation for the foundation, said the Forest Service’s decision earlier this year to look at an alternative that involved just Idaho County caused problems for the group’s members.
“Folks just didn’t want us to be involved anymore and were really concerned about the loss of access and recreation,” he said.
The land swap deal has faced initial opposition by various entities critical of the Forest Service’s plan to trade tracts of popular federal land for remote acreage owned by the timber company. In response, a draft environmental impact statement cut the maximum number of federal acres that could be traded from 28,000 to about 18,000.