Gov. Butch Otter is set to attend a meeting about the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange later this month in Grangeville, Sen. Jim Risch’s office noted among details released last Thursday, Nov. 5. Details as to time and place weren’t final when the senator announced the meeting last month, but Risch’s office confirmed it will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 24 at the GEMS gym.
At issue is the fate of a land trade between Western Pacific Timber and the U.S. Forest Service, which would consolidate public control over land near the Idaho-Montana border in northeastern Idaho County. The Lochsa land is held in a checkerboard pattern – the legacy of federal land grants to railroad companies in the mid-1800s – but is a valuable watershed, according to Forest Service project documents.
WPT has long sought land closer to towns, and early on, in 2010, the Forest Service considered acquiring WPT’s holdings – roughly 40,000 acres – in exchange for roughly 18,000 acres of public land. About 5,000 acres in the Elk City area was analyzed as well as parts in Benewah, Bonner, Clearwater, Kootenai and Latah counties.
The Idaho County Commission sought to have the trade carried out entirely within Idaho County, and in the course of weighing such a trade, the Forest Service analyzed tens of thousands of acres south of Grangeville and southeast of Harpster. A public backlash ensued. Trade opponents organized a “Stop the Swap” group that unsuccessfully launched election efforts to recall Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt. The opposition eventually caused one of the trade’s early supporters – the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – to withdraw from the process.
In October 2013, Idaho’s Congressional delegation – senators Risch and Mike Crapo, and Rep. Raul Labrador – asked the Forest Service to suspend the project, noting the administrative process is “unlikely to end with a successful exchange” and that the goals that first brought the Forest Service and WPT to the bargaining table “could be embodied in an exchange directed by authorizing legislation.”
In September 2014, WPT delivered a plan for legislation to Risch, Crapo and Labrador.
The Nov. 24 meeting therefore marks a key moment for the fate of the land trade, as practically every organization that has weighed in so far – including Risch, Otter, Idaho County Commissioners, representatives from the USFS, WPT and the Nez Perce Tribe, retired foresters, land trade opponents and recreation groups – all appear set to present their points of view: pro, neutral or con.
WPT principal James Dolan will be on hand to speak for the company, according to the materials Risch’s office released last Thursday.
Risch’s office also noted the senator “has agreed to become involved with this issue. He has not taken a position on the land exchange. He will attend the meeting with no preconceived outcomes and will be there to listen.”
Panels will include retired Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth, “Stop the Swap” organizer Ray Anderson, representatives of the Idaho Recreation Council and RMEF, and retired Palouse Ranger District ranger Blake Ballard. The agenda also allows 60 minutes for comments from citizens, who will be afforded the chance to talk for two minutes apiece. Risch will accept written comments through Dec. 11.
The purpose of the meeting, Risch’s office noted, is for the senator “to hear from Idahoans and other concerned citizens regarding a possible land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and Western Pacific Timber.”