[Vision2020] Locking horns over the Lochsa
moscowcares at moscow.com
Sun Nov 22 05:04:52 PST 2015
Courtesy of today's (November 22, 2015) Lewiston Tribune.
Locking horns over the Lochsa
Long-awaited meeting on contentious land swap proposal is Tuesday
Sen. Jim Risch will hold a meeting in Grangeville Tuesday about a proposal to swap federal land for private timberland in the upper Lochsa River basin.
The proposal has been hotly debated for eight years. However, it has received little attention since Risch, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrador, all R-Idaho, became involved more than a year ago. Below is a refresher course on the land exchange and why it's been so controversial.
What is the proposal?
Western Pacific Timber Co. wants to trade about 39,000 acres of its land in the upper Lochsa River basin near Lolo Pass for U.S. Forest Service land of similar value. Under proposed legislation, most of the Forest Service land would come from Idaho County, south and east of Grangeville, including land in the Fish Creek and Cove Road areas that is popular with hunters, snowmobilers and berry and mushroom pickers. It is possible some of the land could come from other areas, such as the Palouse Ranger District, largely north and east of Moscow. These parcels would only be used if they are needed to help equalize the value of land traded between the company and the federal government.
Who is proposing the trade?
The trade was proposed by Western Pacific Timber starting in 2007. Although the Forest Service did not formally approve the trade in its lengthy but incomplete administrative process, the agency has expressed strong interest in acquiring the private land in the upper Lochsa basin that is intermixed with Forest Service land in a checkerboard fashion. Doing so, officials say, would protect the headwaters of the Lochsa River that includes important habitat for steelhead, spring chinook, westslope cutthroat trout and big-game species like elk. The agency also says the trade would make it easier to manage the land by erasing the crisscrossing property lines.
What is Western Pacific Timber Co. and how did it acquire the land?
Western Pacific Timber is a private company that largely manages timber land. It does not own mills or logging operations. It has holdings in Idaho and Washington. The company purchased the upper Lochsa land from Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2006. Andy Hawes, a Boise attorney representing Western Pacific, has said the company intends to manage the lands it would acquire for timber production and intends to own it long into the future.
Who is objecting to the trade and why?
From the beginning there has been strong public opposition to the trade. It started with Friends of the Palouse Ranger District and a small cadre of retired employees of the Palouse Ranger District. Both groups raised concerns about the potential loss of access to public land. The retired foresters said the private land has largely been logged and would be traded for carefully managed public land.
Idaho County commissioners also objected to the trade, saying it would rob the county of its private land tax base. The commissioners then proposed an alternative that would have the exchange happen on an acre-for-acre basis entirely within the county instead of on a value-for-value basis. The Forest Service analyzed the commissioners' alternative of only having the trade occur within Idaho County but were not permitted by federal law to consider an acre-for-acre trade.
A group by the name Stop the Swap formed once it appeared the trade would concentrate on public land near Grangeville. Just like the earlier opposition, Stop the Swap said its members feared losing recreational access to public land.
Who is in favor of it?
The trade has few supporters. Early on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supported the exchange because of the important elk habitat in the upper Lochsa basin that would be protected. However, that support was pulled following strong public opposition to the exchange. The foundation was invited to be on a panel at Tuesday's meeting but declined to participate.
Dale Bosworth, the retired chief of the U.S. Forest Service and a former ranger of the Powell District, supports the exchange. He is among those who say the land in the upper Lochsa basin is important fish and wildlife habitat that should be managed by the federal government and that management would be made easier if the checkerboard ownership pattern is eliminated. Bosworth will speak at the meeting.
What is the business about easements?
To alleviate concerns about the potential loss of access to public lands that would become private under the exchange, Western Pacific is proposing to place deed restrictions, in the form of conservation easements, on the land it acquires. The easements would guarantee public access in perpetuity and forbid development of the land. The extent to which the easements would degrade the value of the land would not be considered in the appraisal of the private and public parcels.
Does the promise of easements satisfy opponents?
No. Opponents say they don't trust that easements will be maintained for the long term and they ask who will settle disputes when and if they arise.
Why is the trade being considered as federal legislation rather than under the U.S. Forest Service administrative process?
The trade did begin its life under the agency's administrative process. But deep into that process it became clear the Forest Service lacked the legal authority to address many of the public's concerns. For example, the Forest Service does not have the ability to place conservation easements on land that would be traded away. But that can be accomplished under a legislative trade.
Why now, wasn't this trade dead?
The trade did appear to be dead. Forest Service officials spent years analyzing the exchange, which produced both a draft environmental impact statement and then a supplemental draft environmental impact statement. But before the agency issued a final decision, Risch, Labrador and Crapo asked the agency to step aside so they could attempt to foster a legislative exchange.
What people are saying
BLAKE BALLARD, a retired forester who worked on the Palouse Ranger District, said the U.S. Forest Service failed to prove the land exchange is in the public's interest. He said the agency's documents reveal no pressing problem that would be solved by acquiring the Western Pacific Timber Co. land.
"They (the Forest Service) very much want to acquire those lands but they didn't shoot with both barrels, they only shot with a BB gun," he said. "They didn't make a case for acquiring those lands."
He said if the Forest Service wants to make it easier to manage its lands in the upper Lochsa basin, it should swap parcels just there so the ownership is in two large blocks instead of a checkerboard.
DALE BOSWORTH, the retired chief of the Forest Service, said the Lochsa land should be under federal ownership because it's a special place with high-quality fish and wildlife habitat. He acknowledges much of the land has been logged but he said it can be restored. As proof he points to the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire that was created when the federal government purchased logged-over private land in the early part of the 20th century.
"White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire was a wasteland, clear cut. Now it's where everybody goes to see the (fall) colors in the leaves. It's a beautiful area. It's been restored," he said. "Yeah, (the upper Lochsa land) has been pretty heavily hit, but I think the Forest (Service) has the ability to restore that land."
RAY ANDERSON of Grangeville and a member of the group Stop the Swap said people in Grangeville are worried the exchange will lock them out of some of their favorite places, including the northern end of the Grangeville-Salmon River Road in the Fish Creek area and the Cove Road area.
"That is one of the best elk areas in this country. They are always in there and always crossing back and forth from the Salmon drainage to the Clearwater drainage and on the other side heading east you get into the Cove Road area, it's also a prime elk thing and morel picking in the spring. It's one of our best spots."
On easements, Anderson fears the enforcement of them will fade over time and if problems arise the public won't have the resources to take legal action.
"I'm not just looking out for me, I'm looking out for my grandkids and their kids," he said. "I'm almost 59 years old and (easement enforcement) probably won't go away while I'm using it but that doesn't mean I'm not going to fight to stop (the exchange)."
SANDRA MITCHELL of the Idaho Recreation Council said the proposed legislation could not only protect recreation access but lead to better recreational opportunities while also supporting timber harvest.
"I think it's unique. I think it protects recreation and provides for recreation in a way that certainly isn't provided for on federal land and is certainly worth serious consideration. It appears that it truly benefits recreation but also benefits other uses."
Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .
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