Railroads & Clearcuts

 Loscha Land Exchange

Plum Creek Timber clearcut on Crooked Fork

 Public Lands of Lochsa Embroiled in Struggle

by Marilyn Beckett

The Missoulian, September 1, 2011

Stop the Swap website on the Loscha

Friends of the Palouse website on the Loscha

Friends of Palouse Ranger District on Facebook

Petition to Federal Legislators

This July, a shift in negotiations was reported between the Clearwater National Forest and the Idaho Board of County Commissioners over the Lochsa Land Exchange.

The Idaho board originally avowed "Not One Acre" of public land should be exchanged for the clear-cut private parcels in the Lochsa currently owned by Western Pacific Timber/Tim Blixseth. The board's alternative is trading public land solely from Idaho County in an "acre for acre" exchange. High priority for the commissioners is preserving the county's property tax base. They apparently believe, like those who have closely followed the exchange, some form of land trade is predestined.

The U.S. Forest Service cannot legally implement an "acre for acre" exchange. This can only be done by Congress, and proposing such a bill or earmark would be contentious for Idaho's ranking congressional delegates. For Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, it would cause problems for key members of his Clearwater Basin Collaborative. For Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, it would also be unpopular, a trade reducing federal assets in a time of budgetary crisis. The likelihood of any attaching their names to a bill supporting this alternative is slim under public scrutiny.

Another possibility being discussed is a "value for value" exchange with public lands traded solely from Idaho County. The Forest Service could do so administratively under the National Environmental Policy Act process. However, problems associated with the original exchange parcels from the Palouse Ranger District and elsewhere still exist - public access, elk and other wildlife habitat, watersheds (some municipal), grazing rights, and the concern over disposal of lands, both public and those connected to ancestral tribal rights. The appraisal process, despite legal guidelines, struggles to provide a proper valuation, as cited by the General Accountability Office and other studies (land exchange protocol - no formal appraisal of the Lochsa will made public until after the Record of Decision, six months before deeds are transferred).

Complicating the issue is Tim Blixseth, who is consistently embroiled in lawsuits. His relationship to the real estate investment trusts and timber investment management organizations, and a significant impact on Idaho, can be surmised.

With due respect to Idaho board's concerns, neither the commissioners nor the Forest Service have the right to give up public land owned by all Americans. Although the board's idea supposedly diverts disposal of 8,000-11,000 acres in the Palouse Ranger District, they still sit on the chopping block. Instead of nearly 18,000 total acres of public land originally proposed for disposal in the trade, approximately 42,000 acres have been added to the pool via the Idaho Board of County Commissioner's proposal. Is 60,000 acres of public land worthy of consideration for disposal?

Public records requests show the majority of comments on the draft environmental impact statement released last November oppose land being exchanged. Many favored purchase. The Forest Service applied for purchase funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund for fiscal year 2011: $10 million/10,200 acres; and again for fiscal year 2012: $38 million/38,000 acres. No monies were appropriated in the 2011 LWCF budget.

The Lochsa Land Exchange proposal was formally initiated in September 2008.

The Idaho Forest Owners Association, a statewide volunteer forest landowners alliance dedicated to the management, use, and protection of private forest resources in Idaho, overwhelmingly opposes any exchange, whether inside or outside Idaho County. They see the liquidation of federal timber driving down timber prices on their carefully managed timber lands. Over half their membership supports a complete purchase. Their survey is representative of documented public opinion.

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell privately reaffirms the deal must happen. Whether consolidating the Lochsa drainage or drawing back the borders of the public lands base, the goal is not transparent. But if public ownership of the Lochsa is important by its own right, then a public purchase with guaranteed funds for Idaho County is the most logical alternative. Otherwise, no deal.

Marilyn Beckett of Moscow, Idaho, represents Friends of the Palouse Ranger District.

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