A U.S. Forest Service land exchange that failed to win public support during years of study and hearings shouldn’t get pushed through Congress by Idaho’s delegation, a group of retired Forest Service employees says.
Two dozen retirees sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month expressing misgivings about the Upper Lochsa exchange.
“It seems like it’s shaping up to be done outside of the public eye and I think that’s wrong,” said Larry Ross, a retired district ranger on the Clearwater National Forest and one of the letter’s signers.
Backed by Western Pacific Timber, the proposal would trade about 39,000 acres of commercial timberland near Lolo Pass for scattered parcels on the Idaho Panhandle and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. The deal would consolidate Forest Service holdings in the headwaters of the wild-and-scenic-designated Lochsa River and put a portion of the historic Lewis and Clark Trail into public ownership. But the swap has been controversial since its proposal nearly six years ago.
Ross and other opponents said the Forest Service never articulated the benefits of the trade to the public. Popular recreation areas were targeted for exchange with steep, inaccessible timberlands on the Idaho-Montana border, they said.
Last fall, U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrabor asked the Forest Service to halt a National Environmental Policy Act review of the swap, saying legislation might be a better option for getting the trade done.
In a September interview with the Lewiston Tribune, Risch pledged an open and consensus-driven process, adding that he hadn’t decided whether to sponsor legislation. Opponents say they’ve heard little since then but have concerns about a closed-door appraisal process that’s underway.
At the delegation’s request, the Forest Service is working on an appraisal of lands that might be part of a future swap. Teresa Trulock, an agency resource specialist, said she couldn’t disclose which parcels are being appraised or reveal the number of acres but said the parcels are located from Riggins, Idaho, north to Kootenai County.
The parcels include a subset of the Forest Service lands previously identified for trade, Trulock said. Under two previous alternatives, the Forest Service evaluated trading up to 18,000 acres in several countries for Western Pacific’s timberlands and an acre-for-acre exchange of lands entirely within Idaho County.
“Folks know these parcels. … At public hearings, they’d say, ‘That’s where I cut my firewood, that’s where I ride my horse and that’s where I pick huckleberries,’ ” Ross said. “It was kind of a shocker to me that the Forest Service was going to give up lands that were heavily used by the public and for lands that were lightly used by the public.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe also has concerns. Several of the Forest Service parcels identified earlier for trade are within the tribe’s ceded territory, where tribal members exercise treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather roots and berries, said Heather Keen, the tribe’s public relations director.
In addition, the tribe’s work to improve water quality on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s tributaries could be threatened if federal lands are converted to industrial timberlands, Keen said.
Risch’s staff distanced him from the Lochsa exchange last week.
“Senator Risch is not spearheading the Lochsa land exchange,” wrote his press secretary, Suzanne Wrasse, in an email. “The proponents of the exchange are working with other stakeholders to garner support.”
“At this point, there’s no legislation,” Wrasse said in a phone conversation.
Andy Hawes, Western Pacific Timber’s attorney, said he’s hopeful that legislation will emerge and move forward this year. He described the delegation’s request to halt the Environmental Policy Act process as a “time-out” to see if stakeholders could reach consensus.
Hawes said he’s driven at least 4,000 miles in north-central Idaho to “talk to people in their living rooms” about the exchange. The company is willing to put easements and deed restrictions on lands that it acquires from the Forest Service to continue public access in areas with a history of recreational use, he said.
“This is an opportunity for the Forest Service to lock up the Lochsa,” Hawes said. “I think that gets lost.”
Western Pacific Timber’s lands in the upper Lochsa drainage are interspersed with Forest Service parcels, a legacy of federal land grants to the railroad in the 1860s. The checkerboard ownership pattern limits the Forest Service’s ability to manage the landscape as a whole, Hawes said.
Western Pacific Timber purchased the lands from Plum Creek and proposed a trade to the Forest Service shortly afterward. In court documents, Tim Blixseth, one of the company’s former owners, said the trade could be worth millions of dollars for Western Pacific Timber.
Blixseth, who has been through a string of messy financial and legal troubles, is better known as the founder of Montana’s Yellowstone Club, a luxury golf and ski resort near Big Sky. Blixseth left the resort as it spiraled into bankruptcy in 2008, according to Associated Press reports. A bankruptcy judge faulted him for setting the resort up to fail by diverting hundreds of millions of dollars for his personal use from a 2005 loan to the resort, according to past news accounts.
Blixseth is no longer an owner in Western Pacific Timber, Hawes said.
Land exchanges are inherently controversial, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, who works on public lands issues for the Idaho Conservation League.
“Every parcel of land has the potential to be special to someone. What is one person’s wasteland is another person’s natural oasis,” Oppenheimer said. Furthermore, “there’s always some measure of skepticism if you’ve got a private timber company pushing it.”
The Idaho Conservation League would prefer to see the Forest Service purchase Western Pacific Timber’s Lochsa acreage. But there’s strong competition for Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars, which would be the primary federal funding source, Oppenheimer acknowledged.
“We agree there’s high public interest in bringing those lands into public ownership,” he said. “One of the worst outcomes would be development of those lands for trophy homes.”
However, Western Pacific Timber doesn’t have “20 years to accomplish a slow sale” to the federal government, Hawes said. “Our time is short.”
He said the company has held off logging the Lochsa acreage while land exchange talks were underway. But years have passed without a deal, and the company gets regular calls from Montana mills that want to put together a timber sale, Hawes said.
Evaluating the acreage for rural residential properties is also part of Western Pacific Timber’s Plan B, Hawes said.
There are three small lakes on the acreage, and “Missoula is just over the hill,” he said.