Boise timber firm to subdivide upper Clearwater Basin land

The move comes as a proposed Lochsa land exchange remains in legislative limbo.

LEWISTON TRIBUNEJuly 9, 2014 

Western Pacific Timber LLC plans to log portions of its 39,000 acres in the upper Clearwater Basin.

Spokesman Andy Hawes said Western Pacific Timber has signed a contract with a Montana company to cut and haul timber near Moose Lake and is looking to subdivide one of its tracts adjacent to U.S. Highway 12 near Powell into eight to 10 plots.

"We have been at this so long, we felt it was time at this point in order to keep the lights on, so to speak, to generate some revenue from our Lochsa lands," Hawes said.

Western Pacific's property is mixed with U.S. Forest Service land in a checkerboard pattern at the headwaters of the Lochsa River. For the past several years, the company and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest officials have been working on an exchange that would swap the private property for a lesser amount of public land.

But that idea has proved to be wildly unpopular with the public. Some people fear they will lose access to the land once it becomes private.

"It's basically a bad idea for the country, the county, for everybody as far as I'm concerned," said Ray Anderson of Grangeville, the seat of Idaho County, where many of the public trade parcels could come from.

The controversial process stagnated last year when members of the Idaho congressional delegation asked the Forest Service to stand down so they could pursue a legislative exchange. The delegation, led by Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, said completing the trade via legislation offered more flexibility.

For example, under the existing federal process, the Forest Service would not be able to place access and development easements on the public land to be traded away. But access and development easements could be allowed through legislation.

The delegation, however, has not appeared eager to introduce a bill. John Sandy, chief of staff for Risch, said the senator has "too much other things going on."

While Hawes said the exchange could still happen, the company must start making alternative plans.

"We are definitely still open to an exchange and definitely would support it, but given our economic situation we may need to proceed with additional steps when it is clear nothing will begin to happen in the legislative process this year, or it's certain nothing will happen early next year."

He said if there is movement on the exchange, the value of the timber and any lots that are sold would be taken into account.

The company's move toward subdividing some parcels was welcomed by Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt. The county is pushing its own version of the exchange to reduce the erosion of its private property tax base. But Brandt said commissioners always favored no exchange at all.

Brandt said his is "all for" subdividing the land.

"That is the economy of Idaho County," he said. "I would love to see a few million-dollar homes go in up there. So let the building commence."

Anderson is happy the company will be logging, something he said is much needed across the forest, and he doesn't have a problem with the company developing its Lochsa property.

"They bought that land legally, and it's their right to develop it and log it as they see fit," he said. "Most of us don't have anything against logging."

Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell said he isn't thrilled with subdividing. He said the idea behind an exchange is to protect the headwaters of the Lochsa and to get rid of the checkerboard property lines that makes management difficult.

But he said the agency will continue to stand aside and give time for Risch, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrador, whose district includes the area, to contemplate legislation.

"We haven't set any deadline on our patience with the delegation," Brazell said. "They have asked us to stand down, and we are standing down."

The Idaho Statesman contributed.

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