(McCall Star News Opinion, published Aug. 12, 2021. Republished with permission)
Alec Williams and his Trident Holdings/Preserve McCall have spent the last year and untold thousands of dollars showing everyone exactly the wrong way to woo the Idaho Department of Lands into giving up state holdings around Payette Lake and McCall. Williams is now out of the picture, but his legacy has put the focus on the arcane topic of Idaho Endowment Fund lands.
In June 2020, Williams appeared seemingly from nowhere to announce a quixotic plan to transfer 21,000 acres of state land around McCall into private hands by trading for timber lands in northern Idaho. Williams pitched his preposterous idea to anyone who would listen, displaying his credentials as a former Navy SEAL, Ivy League graduate and veteran of Wall Street, all at age 33.
He initially got a cool welcome from the land board, as evidenced by a chilling comment from the board’s chair, Gov. Brad Little, that “I have a conflict in the fact that I love McCall, so we want to do this right.” Williams got the message and withdrew his proposal for “refining.” Meanwhile, the shock wave of his proposal put into motion a legion of opponents. First came the Payette Endowment Lands Alliance, a loose-knit band of local residents, second-home owners and others who feared Trident’s proposal. More recently came United Payette, a more formal coalition of conservation groups and those with a direct interest in the endowment lands around McCall. Both groups are well funded and were girding themselves for a protracted legal fight if Preserve McCall, the code name for the proposal, gained traction with the state.
This week, the IDL threw a banana peel under the revised plans of Preserve McCall, unceremoniously tossing out the proposal as being an absurdly bad deal for the state. No doubt Williams will protest, but it is clear Preserve McCall as currently proposed is a dead issue. To be fair, at first glance Preserve McCall made some sense, especially given the track record of the IDL, which has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The agency’s handling of cottage sites over the past decades and its more recent administration of the leasing process of endowment land has been nothing short of shameful. Plus the IDL categorically declares itself exempt from any local planning and zoning laws, so there is some appeal to the suggestion that state lands be put into private hands, where they can contribute property taxes and are subject to local land-use review.
And, it doesn’t help that no one really knows if state endowment lands are fish or fowl. They are not considered “public” yet folks can bike on them, camp on them, hunt on them and collect firewood and huckleberries on them. Their main purpose is to raise money for various public schools, prisons, colleges and mental institutions operated by the state, but not through uses that would seem more germane, such as recreation.
Opponents of Preserve McCall argued the area is better off with the devil we know than the devil we don’t, and they would much rather negotiate the tortuous public process of the state land board than give up public ownership and embark into unknown territory. The land board apparently agrees, but they may become the new bogeyman to replace Trident Holdings. The Trident proposal prompted the state to do its own evaluation of the future of endowment lands. The result was the Payette Endowment Land Strategy, a much smaller proposal than Trident but one that will put key parcels of endowment land on a fast track for development.
Alec Williams may have broken his pick on state endowment lands, but the public awareness resulting from his efforts will influence the disposition of those lands for years to come.