Sen. Jim Risch will hold a meeting in Grangeville on Tuesday night about a proposal to swap federal land for private timberland in the upper Lochsa River basin. Here is a refresher on the land exchange and why it’s been so controversial.
Q: What is the proposal?
A: Western Pacific Timber Co. wants to trade about 39,000 acres near Lolo Pass for U.S. Forest Service land of similar value. Under proposed legislation, most of the Forest Service land would come from Idaho County, south and east of Grangeville, including land in the Fish Creek and Cove Road areas that is popular with hunters, snowmobilers, and berry and mushroom pickers. Some of the land could come from other areas, such as the Palouse Ranger District, largely north and east of Moscow. These parcels would be used only if they are needed to help equalize the value of the trade.
Q: Who is proposing the trade?
A: The trade was proposed by Western Pacific starting in 2007. Although the Forest Service did not formally approve the trade in its lengthy but incomplete administrative process, the agency has expressed strong interest in acquiring the private land in the upper Lochsa basin that is mixed with Forest Service land in a checkerboard fashion. Doing so, officials say, would protect the headwaters of the Lochsa River, which has important habitat for steelhead, spring chinook, westslope cutthroat trout and elk. The agency also says the trade would make it easier to manage the land.
Q:Why did Western Pacific acquire the land?
A: Western Pacific is a private company that largely manages timber land. It does not own mills or logging operations. It has holdings in Idaho and Washington. The company purchased the land from Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2006. Andy Hawes, a Boise attorney representing Western Pacific, has said the company intends to manage the lands it would acquire for timber production and intends to own it long into the future.
Q: Who is objecting to the trade and why?
A: From the beginning there has been strong public opposition. It started with Friends of the Palouse Ranger District and a small cadre of retired employees of the Palouse Ranger District. Both groups raised concerns about the potential loss of access to public land. The retired foresters said the private land has largely been logged and would be traded for carefully managed public land.
Idaho County commissioners also objected to the trade, saying it would rob the county of its private land tax base. The commissioners then proposed an alternative that would have the exchange happen on an acre-for-acre basis entirely within the county instead of on a value-for-value basis. The Forest Service analyzed the commissioners’ alternative but was not permitted by federal law to consider an acre-for-acre trade.
A group by the name of Stop the Swap formed once it appeared the trade would concentrate on public land near Grangeville.
Q: Who is in favor of it?
A: The trade has few supporters. Early on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supported the exchange because of the important elk habitat in the upper Lochsa basin that would be protected. That support was pulled following strong public opposition. The foundation was invited to be on a panel at Tuesday’s meeting but declined to participate.
Dale Bosworth, the retired chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a former ranger of the Powell District, supports the exchange. He is among those who say the land in the upper Lochsa basin is important fish and wildlife habitat that should be managed by the federal government.
Q: What about easements?
A: To alleviate concerns about the potential loss of access to public lands that would become private, Western Pacific is proposing to place deed restrictions, in the form of conservation easements, on the land it acquires. The easements would guarantee public access in perpetuity and forbid development of the land. Opponents say they don’t trust that easements would be maintained for the long term and wonder who would settle disputes.
Q: Why is the trade being considered as federal legislation?
A: The trade did begin its life under the Forest Service administrative process. But deep into that process it became clear the Forest Service lacked the legal authority to address many of the public’s concerns. For example, the Forest Service does not have the ability to place conservation easements on land that would be traded away. But that can be accomplished under a legislative trade.