Rocky Barker: Opponents wave bloody shirt at forest swap

October 28, 2013 

First snow in the mountains along the Lochsa River in Northern Idaho in November 2006.

IDAHO STATESMAN FILE

A proposal by Idaho’s two Republican senators and Rep. Raul Labrador to start talks on writing a bill to exchange of 39,000 acres of private timber in the Lochsa River watershed for national forest has opponents out in force.

Two letters to the Idaho Statesman suggested the proposal was nefarious because the private land is owned by billionaire timberman and developer Tim Blixseth. And one suggested that conservation groups like the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited were part of a secret conspiracy to jam the exchange down Idahoans’ throats because they hired timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey.

This political tactic to stir up animosity, known as waving the bloody shirt, is often used. But it’s not always enlightening.

First, Blixseth no longer owns Western Pacific Timber, the company that owns the private Lochsa timberland. He was forced to give up ownership in 2012 due to defaulting on loans.

But Mark Rey — the former undersecretary of agriculture in the Bush administration, former chief of staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and long a voice of the timber industry — has been hired as a lobbyist by the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited.

The communications director for Friends of the Clearwater wrote one of the letters, on his own and not as a representative of the group. Gary Macfarland, the group’s executive director, guided me to the website Open Secrets, which shows that Rey had indeed been paid $15,000 by the ICL, $30,000 by TU and $42,000 by Western Pacific.

“Its just one of those things that looks a little fishy,” Macfarland said.

Rey worked on efforts to protect the Boulder-White Clouds and other issues for ICL, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the statewide group. He did not work on the land exchange, which ICL has not supported.

Working with Rey helps ICL see itself and its issues through another sets of eyes, he said.

“Some people will tell Mark Rey something different than they would tell me,” Johnson said.

As for the attempt to demonize them for hiring Rey, Johnson gets it. He worked for the Sierra Club on the Northwest timber campaign, when Rey was a general in the enemy camp.

“I helped demonize him,” Johnson said.

The land proposed for swapping is mixed with national forest land in a checkerboard that goes back to the 1860s and the Northern Pacific Railroad land grant. Most agree it and the federal land intermixed would be better managed as a single block.

The land was largely clearcut in the 1980s and 1990s and opponents often refer to it as “hacked over.” But today, young trees cover most it.

Andy Hawes, an attorney for Western Pacific in Boise, said it went to the senators when the Forest Service said it could not do a complicated easement — requested by Idaho County — to protect access and prevent development on the lands it gets in the trade.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Rep. Labrador wrote Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell saying he should pause the administrative land exchange process while the lawmakers try to put together a bill to satisfy the many groups involved in the process.

“We believe that these interest can be better reconciled by the additional authorities and protections that could be embodied in an exchange directed by authorizing legislation,” Risch, Labrador and Crapo said in the letter obtained by the Idaho Statesman.

Macfarland sees little value in a land exchange. Instead, he would like the Forest Service to consider buying the private land. Idaho County would hate that, because it would lose the property tax is now paid on that land in private hands.

Johnson said both senators brought the issue up with him when he was in Washington earlier this month.

“We have not entered into any conversation with anybody,” Johnson said. “It’s fraught with problems.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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