Idaho Sen. Jim Risch had no illusions he would walk into the Grangeville Elementary School on Tuesday evening and hear a strong endorsement for a bill to exchange 39,000 acres of private timber land for national forest in north-central Idaho.
For years a coalition of residents of Riggins and Grangeville, along with others near Moscow, have fought the Forest Service plan to trade 20,000 acres of national forest for the property owned by Boise-based Western Pacific Timber in the Lochsa River mountains. The national forest land is largely in Idaho County between Grangeville and Riggins; it is popular for snowmobiling, hunting, berry and mushroom picking, hiking and four-wheeling.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when more than 300 people showed up, most of them panning the proposal written by the company.
“The crowd was overwhelmingly opposed to the trade, which they said threatens close-to-home recreation and the sense of place that is central to their way of life,” reported Eric Barker of The Lewiston Tribune.
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The Forest Service has supported the land trade because the private forest is intermixed with national forest in a checkerboard pattern that goes back to the land grant the Northern Pacific Railroad got when it put tracks through the region in the 1870s. The land is valuable habitat for elk and other wildlife and includes the headwaters of several salmon spawning watersheds.
Managing it in its current checkerboard is difficult for both the company and the Forest Service. The lands, which include parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail, clearly have national value, but because of the local opposition to any trade, no national or local environmental group supports it.
Gary Macfarlane, the executive director of the group Friends of the Clearwater, has made many enemies over the years in Idaho County with his nearly absolute opposition to logging on public lands. But he actually got a round of applause when he got up and spoke against the proposal.
But the best line of the night came from Anthony Johnson, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. He asked the crowd how it felt to be in the shoes the tribe has walked in for 150 years.
“If you hear ‘so long as the grass will grow, the water will flow,’ become very concerned,” Johnson said, according to The Lewiston Tribune.
Western Pacific put together the bill because the Forest Service couldn’t guarantee that the lands would be kept open to public use. A bill would place conservation easements that would keep land open, but many people are skeptical.
Most of the opposition comes from Idaho County residents who live or play in the area and just don’t want to see it change. Sandra Mitchell, who spoke for snowmobilers and off-road vehicle riders, said she couldn’t support the bill.
Despite the opposition, Risch has not given up the effort. He is not supporting the company’s bill, but his chief of staff, John Sandy, said they are still taking comments until Dec. 11.
“The senator really is neutral,” Sandy said. “But we’ve got work to do.”
Outside of the Forest Service and the company, the main voice favoring the exchange is Idaho County government. County Commission Chairman Jim Chmelik said he’s ready to “go into people’s living rooms and businesses” to answer their questions, and he hopes James Dolan, president of Western Pacific, is ready to go with him.
I’m looking for a solution to restore management to these lands and provide jobs to our people.
Jim Chmelik, Idaho County Commission chairman
Chmelik said he understands the mistrust residents feel about government. He’s the main advocate for transferring the national forest to state ownership, and it would be easier for him to just push that agenda and leave the hard work to the company and the Forest Service.
“I’m trying to solve a problem,” he said.
If the bill is going to go anywhere, the company is going to have to find a way to get the Nez Perce on board. It either needs to find less controversial land to trade or find a way to get support from groups who can help gain ground in Congress, such as motorized recreation and environmental groups.