In 2005, a group of private investors, including one who remains behind bars, acquired 40,000 acres of private timberland in the Idaho portion of the Bitterroot Mountains which span the border with Montana. All along, the plan was to exchange the lands with the U.S. Forest Service for more productive, lower-elevation lands. Like many other best laid plans… they’ve gone awry. (Note: the imprisoned billionaire has since sold his interest in the company.)
The lands in the upper watershed of the Lochsa River are made up of steep slopes, snow-laden forests, and clear-flowing streams. The area stands on a junction of historic trails used by the Nez Perce Tribe to access traditional buffalo-hunting grounds in Montana. Lewis and Clark also crossed these same lands as they pursued a clear path to the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it was in this area that Lewis and Clark met some of their most arduous challenges and were forced to kill and eat a horse to survive.
The convoluted ownership pattern, which resembles a checkerboard, dates back to the times of President Abraham Lincoln. To facilitate the settlement of the West, the federal government awarded 46 million acres to railroads to cover the cost of construction. In the case of the upper Lochsa parcels though, the railroad was never built. Nonetheless, the lands never reverted back to public ownership and instead were the genesis of large timber corporations.
From the outset, the exchange has drawn the ire of local interests who have been concerned with the loss of public lands close-to-home. Others, including the Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene Tribes and retired national forest rangers, have voiced opposition to the proposed swap.
At the same time many-ICL among them-recognize that the 40,000 acres, now controlled by Western Pacific Timber, possess important habitat for threatened species including lynx, wolverine, salmon, steelhead and bull trout. In addition, the checkerboard ownership pattern of the lands poses problems for access, land management, wildlife conservation and fire management. Challenges would expand exponentially if these lands were developed for private homes or cabins.
Still, any proposals must be carried out in the public interest. As the Forest Service’s proposed exchange churned forward, it was becoming increasingly clear that the costs outweighed the benefits. From many viewpoints, the lands being proposed for exchange (many on the doorstep of Grangeville, Elk River, Elk City and other communities) simply were not worth the price of the lands in the upper Lochsa. At the same time, while administrative land exchanges have had their share of problems, they pale in comparison to those associated with legislated exchanges.
That’s why many were concerned when in 2013 Sens. Crapo and Risch and Rep. Labrador requested that the Forest Service “pause” the administrative process. As a result of that request, the Forest Service put their process on hold. Since then, Western Pacific Timber has been working to have a bill introduced by a member of the Idaho Congressional Delegation. As yet, none has complied.
In November 2015, Senator Risch announced a public hearing in Grangeville on the topic. He was quick to distance himself from rumors that a legislative “fix” was imminent. Instead, he billed the event as a listening session to hear from citizens. Hear from them, he did. Attendee after attendee took the microphone to denounce the potential exchange and urged the senator to step away from the controversial proposal.
On a snowy Tuesday night, as turkeys thawed in preparation for upcoming Thanksgiving feasts, hundreds of Idaho County residents made clear that their public lands should not be for sale.
The good news is that there is a ready-made solution to this issue, if only Congress would do its job. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 to set aside a portion of off-shore oil and gas receipts for the benefit of land protection, recreation and conservation. Unfortunately, the authorization for the fund expired on Sept 31, 2015.
Along with 52 other senators, both Sens. Risch and Crapo recently signed onto a letter urging reauthorization of this important legislation. Regardless of this bipartisan support, efforts to renew the fund have been stymied by lawmakers in both the House and Senate who oppose public lands altogether. This despite the fact that nearly $20 billion sits in an account awaiting an opportunity just like the “For Sale” signs in the upper Locsha River watershed.
What should be clear about the hearing last week in Grangeville is that residents of Idaho County, much like residents across Idaho and the West, treasure their public lands and do not want to see them auctioned off to the highest bidder.