Last December marked the completion of the Montana Legacy Project, the largest private conservation land purchase in history. The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands paid $490 million for 310,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber lands across western Montana, and they're in the process of transferring the majority of the land to public ownership.
If only the project had extended to former Plum Creek timberlands just over Lolo Pass in Idaho—because then it could have avoided the controversy there over the Forest Service's effort to lock up about 40,000 acres of checkerboarded lands intermingled with the Clearwater National Forest.
That's Teresa Trulock's thinking, anyway. Trulock manages the Forest Service's proposed Upper Lochsa Land Exchange. It's just like the Montana Legacy Project, she says, "only that had strong support by a prominent senator in Montana"—U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. "We didn't have that luxury, and so we're going about it the only other way we can."
Without money and political will, the Forest Service can only trade for the upper Lochsa land it seeks. The agency proposes acquiring 39,371 acres held by Portland, Ore.-based Western Pacific Timber (WPT)—which is partly owned by timber baron Tim Blixseth, founder of the Yellowstone Club—in exchange for 14,153 acres of Forest Service land elsewhere in Idaho. Since the trade was floated by WPT in April 2006, it's become increasingly contentious, with county commissioners, former Forest Service employees, and environmental groups—even those that want the upper Lochsa's first-rate fisheries and elk and lynx habitat protected—among those opposing it.
The Forest Service released a draft Environmental Impact Statement last November. The comment period endedin March. Now the agency's deciding between options for locking up the land. It hopes to make a decision by year's end.
"What we're trying to do is make sure that we acquire the upper Lochsa," Trulock says. "We've said from the beginning it's not the acquisition anybody's going to be upset about, it's where do you go to exchange?"
The agency's preference is to transfer holdings within several Idaho counties to WPT. That doesn't sit well with Idahoans who recreate on those parcels, including retired Forest Service planner Dick Artley, of Grangeville. He says the exchange kowtows to corporate interests, giving away quality public lands for acres Plum Creek clear-cut before selling them to WPT in 2005. "And we just don't like losing our national forest land," he says.
On the flip side—but also in staunch opposition—is Idaho County, which doesn't want more national forest land. Already the county's composed of 83 percent federal land, and the proposed swap would give it an additional 38,826 acres, and take away the tax dollars private timberlands generate.
Idaho County Commissioners sent Trulock a letter, dated March 8, saying the exchange would be "economically disastrous." They cite a study conducted by University of Idaho researcher Steven Peterson predicting that the exchange would result in the loss of 289 jobs, $20 million in annual economic activity, and $13.4 million in payroll statewide.
The debate doesn't follow the typical jobs-versus-environment dichotomy. A handful of environmental groups also oppose the exchange, including Moscow, Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater. Its director, Gary MacFarlane, says he's long wanted the Forest Service to obtain the upper Lochsa, but he doesn't believe the proposed trade is in the public interest. He points to a June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office study of 31 federal land exchanges. Twenty-one were found to have problems in either determining the dollar value of lands or whether the public interest was served.
"While the upper Lochsa is crucial and important," MacFarlane says, "for a lot of people here on the western side of Clearwater National Forest who recreate on the Palouse Ranger District, these lands are every bit as important to them. One can make the case that the upper Lochsa is more important from an ecological perspective, but the public has to be given some deference here."
There's another factor agitating Idahoans: the involvement of former billionaire Blixseth, who stood at the center of the ugly, protracted Yellowstone Club bankruptcy case in 2008 and 2009. He returned to the headlines two weeks ago when Montana, Idaho, and California filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against him, claiming he owes $2.3 million in back taxes.
Blixseth's company, which acquired the Lochsa lands with the intent to trade them to the Forest Service, remains at the negotiating table despite the fact that the number of acres it would get in the deal has been roughly halved since it was first proposed.
"We are at a point this year where if we don't put something together that makes sense to us from a business perspective then we'll have no choice but to do what we can do to recoup our original investment," says WPT general counsel Andy Hawes.
MacFarlane, for one, is holding out. He wants WPT to sell its 40,000 acres to a buyer who would donate the land to the public, as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands did in the Montana Legacy Project.
"The Montana Legacy Project worked," MacFarlane says. "If our political leaders here in Idaho had the courage, I think it'd work here, too."