When I started monitoring federal land exchanges in 1996, some of the biggest projects involved so-called "checkerboard" lands. Created by the railroad land grants during the 19th century, they made for a confusing array of public land mixed with private land.
Often, the exchanges that the Forest Service proposed to consolidate checkerboard ownership seemed logical and garnered little controversy. But then federal land trades in Washington state with timber giants Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek exposed the nasty underside of the deals: The public would get rocks, ice and clear-cuts; the timber companies would get the trees. In short, old-growth trees and sensitive lands got privatized while public lands were shortchanged in appraisals. Revelations about those deals inspired reforms that have generally made the Forest Service's land-trade program more accountable.
Unfortunately, one trade currently proposed in Idaho, the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange, is like a bad flashback: It's riling locals, has made the agency look clueless and has ushered in a worst-case scenario of congressional intervention.
First, it's a land deal with would-be "timber baron" Tim Blixseth. He has a long history involving land swaps, failed development deals and bankruptcies. In this instance, Blixseth's Western Pacific Timber has proposed to trade 39,000 acres of mostly cutover land within the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests for 28,000 acres of public land (and lots of trees) in those forests plus one other in Idaho.
As is often the case, some of what the public would get from Blixseth is worth acquiring, but so is much of the public land worth keeping out of his or other private hands. There is also raw anger that the Forest Service would even consider a trade with Blixseth, and many people living in the Palouse Ranger District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater were incensed to learn that the trade would essentially privatize that ranger district.
Locals questioned the deal, first proposed in 2006, and some considered challenging it. But they dutifully followed the National Environmental Policy Act process and pored through the draft environmental impact statement. To its credit, the agency did consider partial purchase of Blixseth's lands as one of the alternatives, something that critics had requested.
But then things got weird. The vast preponderance of Blixseth's land is in Idaho County. The county commissioners there opposed any net loss of private land and proposed an acre-for-acre exchange within their county. Such an exchange would not be legal, because the Forest Service must trade value-for-value, and in this case the disparity in land values makes that impossible.
So what did the agency do? It issued a supplemental EIS analyzing the illegal acre-for-acre exchange.
Members of the Western Lands Project have seen the Forest Service do some foolish things involving land swaps, but this one took the cake. Discussions with the national office yielded little insight, so we can only assume that pressure from the Idaho congressional delegation and the rumored high priority the trade had for Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell led to this gross error.
Only legislation can authorize an acre-for-acre land exchange, and the pitfalls inherent in checkerboard land exchanges are exceeded only by those of congressionally sponsored trades. These trades have no rules and no legal recourse exists to challenge them. The National Environmental Policy Act is usually bypassed and the exchange mandated. Public input is limited to phone calls to Congress or an expensive trip to D.C. for five minutes of hearing testimony. Worse, congressional members who might normally be helpful on public land issues traditionally defer to any member dealing away federal land in his or her state.
Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and former Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, now lobbyists, have been pushing for a Lochsa bill for years, and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is the likely sponsor. Local Forest Service officials confirm they've seen a draft bill. Although the Obama administration is generally opposed to legislated land trades, the Forest Service appears ready to wash its hands of the deal and let Congress do the dirty work.
This is a bad deal and needs to be stopped in its tracks. The Lochsa trade has never had support beyond the offices of Chief Tidwell and Western Pacific Timber. Hundreds of Idahoans have worked for seven years to stop this trade, only to find themselves now in limbo, fearing a land exchange bill that they could be powerless to stop.
No land deal—regardless of how much time and money it has consumed—is inevitable, and none more richly deserves to be abandoned than the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange.
Janine Blaeloch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is founder and director of the Western Lands Project, which monitors land exchanges and sales to prevent privatization of public lands. She is based in Seattle.