GRANGEVILLE What nearly three hours of public testimony brought forth last week was an emphatic public “no” to long-deliberated plans for a public-private lands exchange between the Forest Service and Western Pacific Timber (WPT).
Apart from less than a handful of supporters for the long-termed Lochsa Land Exchange, the majority of the approximately 40 speakers at a Nov. 24 public hearing, organized by U.S. Senator Jim Risch, opposed the swap. Reasons ran the spectrum of concerns for impacts to property values and on business (recreation/tourism and agriculture); on affects to scenic, historic and Nez Perce Tribal sites and vistas, as well as on wildlife (both big game and fish); distrust that WPT would abide by proposed conservation easements allowing continued public access for outdoor recreation; doubts on WPT as a good environmentally minded neighbor for issues of timber harvest, watershed protection and wildfire; and questions on purported environmental benefits to lands management and wildlife the swap would promote.
At the emotional level, opponents noted generational use of public lands proposed for trade to WPT for recreation (such as mushroom gathering and ATV riding) and hunting: “These aren’t just near our backyards; they are our backyards,” testified Ron Beitelspacher of Grangeville, former Idaho State Senator, who echoing the skepticism of many in attendance these uses would long continue under private ownership.
Lochsa Land Exchange: at a glance
Western Pacific Timber (WPT) proposes to trade approximately 39,000 acres of land in the upper Lochsa River basin near Lolo Pass with the Forest Service for land of similar value. The WPT trade was first proposed in 2007 to address land management issues with “checkerboard ownership” of private and public properties, and was for the USFS an opportunity to protect the headwaters of the Lochsa for wildlife habitat.
The trade has been in limbo for the past three years after Idaho’s Legislative Delegation requested the agency and WPT pause the administrative process in favor of a legislative approach. WPT produced a draft bill in 2014, but Senator Jim Risch said last Tuesday he would author his own bill – if he decides to support the trade.
Dave Thompson of Lewiston, who has property in the heart of proposed exchange, testified, “I spend a lot of time up there. I’ve invested my life savings in my cabin and I have a lot of passion for that area.” He doubted the “easements in perpetuity” promise, saying the failure to uphold these would likely end up in court.” He was concerned the exchange would affect the recreational life of him and others on these lands.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” Thompson said.
The Lochsa land exchange was discontinued more than three years ago having failed to pass through the administrative process, and it has more recently been revived in legislation proposed by WPT, not by Senator Risch who repeatedly through the evening noted he has not proposed or drafted legislation or is currently considering it.
“This has been kicking around for some time,” Senator Risch said to approximately 320 attendees who packed the Grangeville Elementary Middle School gymnasium, “and a lot has been written about it: some true, some not true.” His stance, which he continually re-emphasized, was neutral on the issue; that this evening was for fact-gathering for use in determining whether to continue to proceed, and if so, how with the swap.
One point Risch saw as clear -- the current checkerboard ownership of FS and WTP properties in the Upper Lochsa – makes land management difficult for both, a point agreed to during the evening by retired Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who favored the exchange. Risch added, unless this is resolved, “five years from now, 10 years from now, this is going to be an issue.”
“Idaho County can’t forego more land in lost tax base,” noted Idaho County Commission chair Jim Chmelik. With 5.4 million acres under federal management this leaves less than 15 percent of county lands taxable to fund public services such as law enforcement, roads and education. The initial land swap proposed exchanges that would have increased the amount of public lands within the county, reducing the tax base by around $100,000 annually. The commission worked with the Forest Service on the so-termed “Idaho County Proposal” acre-for-acre swap -- currently at issue -- to maintain its taxable lands base.
For the Idaho Recreational Council, executive director Sandra Mitchell said the organization could not agree on this proposal.
“At heart, it’s a lack of trust,” Mitchell said, regarding the exchange, “promises made, promises not kept,” and noted as an example the establishment of the River of No Return Wilderness where public access was not maintained despite statements it would be. Mitchell raised concerns for wildlife, on whether lands would be logged and then sold for development, and on trading lands that 10 years from now could be falling apart and trails closed due to failure to maintain them. She also questioned the promise for conservation easements, “completely new and not completely understood … and that uncertainty leads to more distrust.”
Blake Ballard, Friends of the Palouse Ranger District, questioned the Forest Service to explain why it gave up on the administrative process, which he subsequently answered himself was due to overwhelming public opposition to the lands’ swap that the agency heavily favored, “and in an apparent end-run asked the Idaho Legislative Delegation to step in.”
Several speakers viewed the exchange as an unequal trade of good lands for bad, and that WPT is more about land development than timber management. Some asked that other ownership alternatives be sought, vying between having nonprofit organizations take purchase and donate these to the Forest Service, or maintaining the county tax base with private ownership other than WPT.
“This doesn’t look like a public benefit to me,” testified Nick Hazelbaker against the exchange, whose family has property four miles east of Harpster. He was concerned on the impact of private lands on his unrestricted view, as well as for how wildfire fighting would be conducted by WPT: “I trust the Forest Service fire response.”
“Checkerboard ownership,” he said, “is a most inefficient way to manage resources,” said Bill Mulligan of Kamiah, who testified the exchange “is the right way to go,” specifically on a land management issue regarding checkerboard ownership of noncontiguous public and private lands,” which has been eliminated about everywhere else.”
He agreed with the county’s intent to maintain its tax base and not add more lands to Forest Service ownership, which curtails access and allows them to burn. “Kamiah about lost its sawmill,” Mulligan said, referring to this past summer’s wildfires, “and I’m really concerned about who owns adjacent lands.”
On that issue, Susan Hagle of Harpster testified, “We have a ranch up against some of this exchange,” that their cattle are dependent on adjacent springs. “We believe it will threaten the water supply next to us if the exchange goes through.” Robin Herrman of Grangeville testified watershed protection is an important factor in the exchange but “I don’t agree this is a good solution,” saying the exchange would negatively impact her property and that of her neighbors. She doubted access rights would remain under the proposal, and she stated to Risch, “the Idaho County Commission does not have the support of this community, and they’re trying to force an issue the public really doesn’t want.”
“The best chance for these public lands is with public ownership,” testified Craig Spencer of Grangeville, a lifelong cattle rancher, who advocated for conservative management for both environmental concerns and timber harvest. “We can keep our mills and we can keep our recreation if we don’t get greedy.”
Jon Menough of Elk City testified in support of the exchange, primarily for economic reasons in avoiding losing more private lands into public ownership. The commission is pressed to provide more county services with fewer dollars, Menough said, adding that, “PILT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] is great,” however, it continues to decrease.
“We’ve got to have more income,” he said and the exchange opens up lands to support the economic side vital to the county.