COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — A group of about two dozen retired U.S. Forest Service employees has sent a letter to the U.S. Senate and Natural Resources Committee decrying a proposed northern Idaho land exchange.
The Spokesman-Review reported the group is concerned that Idaho’s congressional delegation is pushing the land exchange through Congress.
Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, and Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, last fall asked the Forest Service to halt a National Environmental Policy Act review of the exchange. The lawmakers said legislation might be a better option for getting the trade done.
“It seems like it’s shaping up to be done outside of the public eye, and I think that’s wrong,” said Larry Ross, a retired district ranger on the Clearwater National Forest.
But it’s unclear what’s happening with the land swap in Congress.
“Senator Risch is not spearheading the Lochsa land exchange,” said his press secretary, Suzanne Wrasse, in an email to the newspaper. “The proponents of the exchange are working with other stakeholders to garner support.”
The deal involves a combination of purchasing and trading public land to obtain about 40,000 acres of private land owned by Western Pacific Timber Co. in the upper Lochsa River basin. The land includes habitat for threatened steelhead and bull trout, Canada lynx, elk and portions of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Explorers Lewis and Clark trekked the area in the early 1800s.
But the group said the deal trades away popular recreation areas for inaccessible timberlands on the Idaho-Montana border.
Idaho lawmakers asked that the Forest Service appraise the lands that could be part of the swap. Teresa Trulock, an agency resource specialist, said the parcels are located from Riggins, Idaho, north to Kootenai County. But Trulock said she couldn’t disclose which parcels are being appraised or the number of acres involved.
The Forest Service has said the deal could help consolidate a patchwork of public forest lands in the area.
But Ross said the lands that could be traded to the timber company are popular among area residents.
“Folks know these parcels,” he said. “At public hearings, they’d say, ‘That’s where I cut my firewood, that’s where I ride my horse and that’s where I pick huckleberries.’ It was kind of a shocker to me that the Forest Service was going to give up lands that were heavily used by the public and for lands that were lightly used by the public.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has also voiced concern, saying some of the parcels identified for trade are within the tribe’s ceded territory. Heather Keen, the tribe’s public relations director, said tribe members exercise treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather roots and berries on the land.
Andy Hawes, Western Pacific Timber’s attorney, said the company is willing to put easement and deed restrictions on land it acquires to allow public use to continue.
“This is an opportunity for the Forest Service to lock up the Lochsa,” Hawes said. “I think that gets lost.”
The Idaho Conservation League said it would like to see the Forest Service purchase Western Pacific Timber’s Lochsa lands rather than trade for them.
“We agree there’s high public interest in bringing those lands into public ownership,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, who works on public lands issues for the league. “One of the worst outcomes would be development of those lands for trophy homes.”
Hawes said some of the property would make a good area for residential building, which he said could be the company’s second option if a land-swap deal doesn’t work out.
“Missoula is just over the hill,” Hawes said.
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com