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A growing range of options and concerns about the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange along the Montana-Idaho border has earned the proposal another 30 days of public input.

The potential swap of 40,000 acres of checkerboard timberland just west of Lolo Pass for other U.S. Forest Service property in Idaho would be one of the largest in the state’s history, according to Kamiah Ranger Station project manager Teresa Trulock. The range of lands involved, plus a late-coming alternative, prompted the Forest Service to extend the public comment period through mid-February.

The Forest Service’s preferred alternative was to trade between 14,000 and 18,000 acres in scattered parcels around the Idaho Panhandle to Western Pacific Timber Co., which owns the Upper Lochsa land. The traded lands would have an equal value in timber or real estate development potential as the high-mountain property. They are spread across six counties and three national forests.

But Idaho County commissioners, who govern the Lochsa area, complained they would lose a huge chunk of their tax base if Western Pacific Timber’s holdings in their county were made public. They asked the Forest Service to study an acre-for-acre deal that would save the county about $100,000 a year in tax revenue and maintain timber access for a local sawmill.

Critics of the project say both ideas are bad, and the Idaho County swap is possibly illegal. Last month, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation withdrew its support because of “overwhelming negative reaction by our members to the perceived loss of recreational opportunity” and “significant amounts of crucial winter range for elk which could potentially be compromised.”

And after several years of analysis, Western Pacific Timber wants a decision. The company’s staff attorney, Andy Hawes, said he hopes for a resolution by the end of this year.

“If a deal can’t be put together in 2012, we have to move on,” Hawes said. “We’d have to get a return on our investment, and that means harvesting on the Lochsa lands. There’s significant board feet there – more than people think.”

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Western Pacific Timber has footed most of the $5.5 million bill for environmental impact statements, timber cruising and land appraisals done by the Forest Service and Missoula-based Tetra Tech, an environmental research firm. Exchange opponent Marilyn Beckett said that appeared to be a major conflict of interest.

“It has nothing to do with conservation,” Beckett said. “There’s no real problem with the watershed in those parcels. The fisheries are fine. The land was intensively harvested, there wasn’t much silvaculture done there, and there’s lot of roads the Forest Service may want to take out. But they haven’t put together a restoration plan, and when budgets are being cut everywhere, I don’t see how they can.”

Trulock said it is standard policy when a private entity wants a major project undertaken, it must pay the Forest Service’s costs without control over the outcome.

“They sign an agreement that says you pay the bills and nothing else,” Trulock said. “And that’s very clear to the contractor – they have to sign a statement saying we have no guarantee of future work, and we are working for the Forest Service under their direction.”

As to the relative trading value of the swap lands, Trulock said the agency is looking across 62,000 federal acres to find 14,000 to 18,000 acres of equal value property. And the Idaho County proposal may not get off the ground anyway.

“We’ve stated clearly it’s not a legal option for us,” she said of the acre-for-acre alternative. “It would take federal legislation to do that. But that’s what we were asked to look at, and they (Idaho County commissioners) are an elected body. But the analysis looks like the acre-for-acre alternative will not have that great an economic impact on Idaho County as the county thinks it will be.”

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Retired Palouse Ranger Station employee John Krebs, an exchange opponent, said the agency has a poor record of properly valuing its own land.

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“Its appraisals are based on sawlog volume, from stump to landing, landing to mill, and raw land value,” he said. “The price of timber at the time figures into that, but the burning, planting, thinning, phone lines, road construction and public uses aren’t considered in a value-for-value exchange. So the appraiser does an excellent job of evaluating forest land, but skips other multiple uses. If they would correct that, most of these exchanges would never happen.”

But Western Pacific Timber is committed to maintaining public access and wildlife habitat values on the exchange lands, according to Hawes.

“It’s always been company policy to continue free public access,” Hawes said. The company is also considering conservation easements or other methods that would keep hunting and recreation values protected, he said.

While the previous deadline for comments on the exchange was Jan. 17, Trulock said she hoped people would take advantage of the extra time.

“A lot of people ask: ‘Am I wasting my time sending comments?’ ” Trulock said. “I get pretty discouraged hearing that. In meetings at Palouse, people asked if we’d already made the decision. Now, a year later, I’m analyzing another option and we’re using public comment to make a better decision. We might not be able to resolve all the issues, but hopefully you can reduce the bulk of them.”

Information on the exchange can be found on the Internet at http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/project_content.php?

project=26227.

Public comment on the draft EIS has begun and will run through mid-February. 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.

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