A new proposal to protect timberlands west of Lolo Pass could save jobs for Idaho towns, if its supporters can find a legal way to push it through.
The latest version of the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange draft environmental impact statement would have the U.S. Forest Service make an acre-for-acre swap with Western Pacific Timber Co., all within the boundaries of Idaho County, Idaho. County Commissioner Skip Brandt said that would help his rural communities hang on to their economic base.
"In Idaho County, we're 85 percent public land," Brandt said. "It's a huge county to provide law enforcement and search and rescue services with only a 15 percent tax base. We can't afford to go to 90 percent or even 86 percent public land."
But that could violate the Forest Service's requirement to get fair market value for any property it exchanges. It prefers an appraised swap that offers one acre of public land for every two acres of the approximately 40,000 acres of Western Pacific Timber property. A different deal could require congressional approval.
"That's outside our authority to do," said Kamiah Ranger District project manager Teresa Trulock. "Somebody else would have to promote that."
The land in question is checkerboarded around U.S. Highway 12 along the Montana-Idaho border. It is popular with snowmobilers and cross-country and backcountry skiers in winter, as well as campers and hunters in summer and fall. It has good habitat for sensitive species such as steelhead and bull trout, lynx and wolverine.
"There's certainly great ski opportunities up at the pass on both sides of the border," said John Weyhrich of the Missoula Nordic Ski Club. "The whole Lolo Pass area, with the amount of snow they get, and the terrain they have, could have world class Nordic ski facility."
There are also numerous small lakes and streams that have potential for real estate development. Commissioner Brandt said if the Western Pacific Timber land was put in public ownership, his county stood to lose $100,000 a year in tax revenue and the local sawmill would lose access to one-fifth of the county's harvestable timber. That could cost 128 jobs, Brandt said.
"I've spent since the first of March trying to put sticks in the spokes of the exchange," Brandt said. "We just can't take that economic hit."
Trulock said Western Pacific Timber bought it from Plum Creek Timber Co. with the intention of trading it for better harvest lands. Most of the marketable trees in the Upper Lochsa properties have already been logged, she said.
"We tried to start an exchange with Plum Creek to acquire checkerboard about 10 years ago, but they weren't interested at the time," she said. "It makes it hard to manage resources across a landscape when you only have every other square mile."
Plum Creek was open to a land deal in Montana that eventually put 310,000 acres of its timber land into public or conservation ownership. But the Montana Legacy Project depended on federal appropriations as well as fundraising from The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands for a cash purchase.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation Trust said his group called for a similar deal in the Upper Lochsa. But the down economy, cuts to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and lack of a congressional advocate have made that a non-starter.
"Elk River and Idaho County citizens value their public lands, and they don't want to see them sold off to the highest bidder," Oppenheimer said. "The Montana Legacy Project was successful in large part because of the position of Sen. Max Baucus. We don't necessarily have those political stars lining up here."
Other ideas the Forest Service has considered involved swapping acres out of neighboring Benewah, Bonner, Clearwater, Kootenai, Latah and Idaho counties. The Forest Service has four options besides the Idaho County proposal to consider in its EIS. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is exploring a conservation easement for the area.
"This will not be an easy decision to make," Nez Perce/Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell said. "There is nearly unanimous support for acquiring the Upper Lochsa lands, but every parcel we have identified for possible exchange has a concerned and vocal constituency."
The exchange has been in the works since 2008. If an alternative surfaces from this draft, it could be finalized around fall of 2012.
Information on the exchange can be found on the Internet at www.fs.fed.us/nepa/project_content.php?project=26227. Two open house sessions are scheduled for Nov. 28 at the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge in Riggins and Nov. 29 in the National Guard Armory in Grangeville. Both sessions run from 2-7 p.m.
Public comment on the draft EIS has begun and will run through mid-January. Email comments can be delivered through the Forest Service website, while written comments should be sent to Kamiah Ranger Station, 903 Third St., Kamiah, Idaho, 83536. For more information, call (208) 935-4256.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.