GRANGEVILLE Maps released Thursday by the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) and state forester David Groeschl indicate more than 24,000 acres within about 11 miles south and 14 miles east of Grangeville are part of talks that would put an end to checkerboard ownership of the Lochsa River basin.
But only if IDL finds public support for the plan, known as the “Central Idaho Land Exchange.”
In an apparent effort to avoid one of the pitfalls that years ago doomed a Forest Service project that would have consolidated federal ownership of the Lochsa, Groeschl and IDL last week put forward an op-ed and fact sheet explaining the state’s intentions alongside the maps.
“The federal lands acquired by IDL would be managed for sustainable timber harvest, and the revenue from timber sales would financially support Idaho’s public schools,” Groeschl wrote. “Economic activity on the lands would support jobs in the local communities, and the lands would remain open for recreation.”
The maps highlight about 37,000 acres including parcels in Benewah, Latah and Clearwater counties IDL is working to bring under state ownership.
“That is not to say that IDL will acquire 37,000 acres,” IDL public information officer Sharla Arledge clarified for the Free Press Monday, June 4. “If there is enough public support to move forward, appraisals will be done which will help further narrow down the parcels to be included based on value.”
The maps indicate Elk City-area federal land the Forest Service previously evaluated for trade is not part of IDL’s selection.
The trade would involve a transfer of private lands to the federal government: alternating square miles which are owned by Western Pacific Timber, deep in the core of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.
“When the private lands transfer to federal ownership, the Forest Service would deed selected federal lands to the State of Idaho,” Idaho Department of Lands Acting Director and State Forester David Groeschl wrote in his op-ed. “The value of the lands IDL receives from the Forest Service would equal the value of the lands the Forest Service receives from Western Pacific Timber.”
The new trade would involve much of the same federal acreage studied for a trade under an old Forest Service project, but Groeschl wrote it is “fundamentally different” in concept.
“Western Pacific Timber would have remained a large landowner in the area under the Lochsa Land Exchange,” he wrote. “Under the Central Idaho Land Exchange concept, Western Pacific Timber no longer would own land in the area.”
Instead, IDL would see its holdings in the area south and east of Grangeville grow from 14,530 acres to as much as 38,792.
The net reduction in the amount of private land in Idaho County would cut into the county’s tax base, and the deal Groeschl outlined calls for payment to the county of a certain number of years’ worth of property taxes.
Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt said June 1 he anticipates the payment would balance the tax base “for maybe five years, then cold turkey of $100,000 forever.”
While the new concept is different from the old in that all the land that is presently public would remain public, it would require a federal public involvement process – a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Groeschl wrote, “which must go through a public review period.”
In the course of exploring a trade of its own with WPT, years ago, the Forest Service had prepared a draft EIS as required under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act; but the old documentation is no longer publicly accessible online. The Forest Service project page now lists one document: a copy of a June 30, 2017 federal register notice that the project is “officially withdrawn per request of the U.S. Forest Service.”
“If the Central Idaho Land Exchange were to move forward, it would either require a major update of the analysis and data in the previous draft EIS or an entirely new NEPA analysis,” Arledge clarified for the Free Press June 5. “What parts of the original NEPA analysis are still valid and what parts would need to be updated or completely redone would be determined by the US Forest Service.”
In a June 1 press release, some of the people and groups who opposed the old trade stated their opposition to the new one. Friends of the Palouse Ranger District, Palouse Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Clearwater-Snake Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Palouse Ranger District, Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho County resident Janice Ingrahm issued a joint statement in opposition.
The Free Press also received a phone call from Brett Haverstick of Friends of the Clearwater, who expressed a concern that IDL might not hold in perpetuity the federal lands it would acquire.
In his op-ed, Groeschl had written that “Idaho law does not allow the State to sell endowment timberland,” but Haverstick said he worried IDL could accept the land as endowment, then reclassify it for sale.
“IDL has no interest in going through a multi-year exchange and then turn around and sell or exchange out of these lands,” Arledge said, citing Idaho Code which states “all state-owned lands classified as chiefly valuable for forestry, reforestation, recreation and watershed protection are hereby reserved from sale and set aside as state forests.”
“Even if IDL could sell timberland, we are constitutionally prohibited from selling more than 320 acres of endowment land to any one entity,” she added. “Plain and simple, our goal is to acquire good productive timberlands that are adjacent to or intermingled with existing IDL endowment lands that can be actively managed in perpetuity.”
Friends of the Clearwater has released public records of IDL’s internal email concerning the exchange; among the e-mails the group released is one from October 2016 in which Groeschl directed the formation of an IDL internal group tasked with evaluating the lands the Forest Service had previously considered trading. His directive listed eight criteria, including one that selected land “meets or exceeds a hurdle rate of 3.5 percent net” – the minimum rate of return IDL would require of the capital involved in the purchase.
According to IDL’s fact sheet, the state money involved would come from Idaho’s Land Bank funds.
The project maps, op-ed and fact sheet are all accessible online at idl.idaho.gov/real-estate/central-id/index.html.