Lochsa Land Exchange: After stall, trade receives congressional support

Although three members of Congress signed off on a letter last week declaring the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange essentially dead in its current form, no obituary need be written for the controversial plan to acquire approximately 60 square miles of scattered private timber holdings in north eastern Idaho County. Rather, after years of revision and repeated delays, the land trade between Western Pacific Timber (WPT) and the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest may be born again as a legislative trade – a fundamentally different approach than has guided planning thus far.

For seven years prior to last week’s letter, dated Sept. 30, the land trade evolved within the bounds of bureaucracy, shaped by the laws that grant the Forest Service power to acquire and dispose of land so long as managers apply a specific administrative process for incorporating public input.

In their joint letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell last week Sen. Jim Risch, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrador proclaimed the administrative effort “unlikely to end with a successful exchange” – and suggested the goals that first brought the Forest Service and WPT to the bargaining table back in 2006 “could be embodied in an exchange directed by authorizing legislation.”

“Consequently, we request the Forest Service and WPT to pause the administrative exchange and, instead, stand ready to assist in the development of a balanced legislative proposal,” the letter reads. It goes on to spell out seven criteria for the legislation to address. WPT attorney Andy Hawes said the company “would prefer a legislative approach over an administrative approach because we believe this process gives the best climate to achieve an exchange that is win-win for all the stakeholders.”

“We welcome the opportunity to participate in a legislative collaborative,” Hawes said. 

The Sept. 30 letter notes that “some of the concerns already raised by stakeholders cannot be addressed without additional legislative authority.”

Of the five approaches the Forest Service developed, Alternative F, also known as the Idaho County Plan, is the only one the Forest Service lacks the authority to complete. The administrative process generated several other alternatives as well, but the legislative process is not bound to choose from among them.

The Forest Service is legally allowed to trade land value-for-value – or to buy land outright with cash purchases. An outright purchase – Alternative E, backed by environmentalist organizations, such as Friends of the Clearwater – was considered. But the administrative alternatives B, C and D all focused on offering 14,000 to 18,000 acres of mature public forest land to acquire the remote private sections in the Upper Lochsa, which were heavily cut during the 1990s.

Alternative F, which the combined forests’ management considered in 2011 at the Idaho County Commission’s request, describes a fundamentally different trade concept. Under that plan, about 45,000 acres of heavily-forested land were evaluated in order to identify enough suitable land to complete an acre-for-acre trade entirely within the county. Even though the Forest Service lacked the legal authority to complete such a trade, it had a legal obligation to consider the Idaho County Plan, because the Idaho County board insisted anything less than an acre-for-acre trade would unfairly cut into the county’s tax base.

The county commissioners also argued that jobs in the local timber industry would be foregone if the Forest Service prevented the sections it would acquire from producing significant timber cuts in the future.

The county’s economic concern is explicitly addressed in the second of seven legislative trade criteria the congressmen sent to Tidwell: “The exchange legislation must provide a net economic benefit to the citizens of Idaho County.”

Because the process described in the letter calls for a new round of input from stakeholders, it is not clear how the economic benefits to Idaho County would be measured. The Forest Service found various economic benefits to Idaho County associated with several of the alternatives it considered, so a legislative trade might not need to be acre-for-acre to meet the criteria. But during the development of Alternative F, the Idaho County Commission argued that a net loss of acreage in private ownership would in the long term constitute a net loss for the local timber economy.

The congressional authority may also boost an idea that emerged locally after Alternative F became controversial. When, in September 2011, local ranchers learned ownership changes might be afoot for land traditionally open to grazing under Forest Service permits, they asked the principles to consider including deed restrictions or conservation easements to limit development and ensure the land would remain open for traditional uses. As quoted by the Lewiston Tribune in a report last week, WPT attorney Andy Hawes and combined forests supervisor Rick Brazell both recognized forging a deal legislatively could allow perpetuities to be included in the trade – if a suitable easement holder can be found.

Some trade opponents, such as Stop The Swap, which formed in opposition to Alternative F, have described the legislative approach as a tactic by which WPT might secure more land than would be possible under the Forest Service’s authority, or by which the parties might complete a trade that could not be challenged in court.

The Idaho County Commission has supported “a possible legislative solution to the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange,” but not unanimously. Commissioners Jim Chmelik and Skip Brandt sent a letter in support of pursuing a legislative trade to Sen. Risch, dated Sept. 16, after commission chairman James Rockwell sent Risch a letter opposing any trade under which Idaho County would “lose even one more acre of our private tax and production base to the Federal Government.”

“It is hard for me to understand how anyone can justify handing over control of additional private acres to the Federal Government,” county commissioner Skip Brandt said. (Brandt chaired the commission in 2011.) “That is why we stood firm against the Forest Service administrative alternative. And that is why we have worked from the beginning to have our Congressional Delegation help develop a legislative alternative that will protect Idaho County. I look forward to working on a final alternative that will mean jobs to Idaho County, not an increase of taxes.”

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