In the 1800′s Congress passed a series of laws granting lands to railroad companies to promote settlement and development in the West. This resulted in certain checkerboard landscapes, in which every other square mile was either private or public land. Lands in the upper Lochsa have a checkerboard landscape pattern. The Northern Pacific Railroad ended up being completed north of the Clearwater Basin, however. The railroad barons did not live up to the requirements in the legislation, though, and tragically, those lands were not returned to public ownership.
Plum Creek eventually gained ownership of these tracts of land on both sides of Lolo Pass (Montana/Idaho), and proceeded to clear-cut much of the forest. In 2005, Western Pacific Timber (WPT) purchased 39,000-acres of cut-over land from Plum Creek in the upper Lochsa drainage of Idaho. In 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Forest Service and WPT that stated a land exchange would occur.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange was released in November 2010. It proposed to obtain 39,000-acres of cut-over WPT land in exchange for 18,000-acres of forested, lower elevation public land on the Idaho Panhandle, Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests. Fierce citizen opposition soon surfaced, including resistance from dozens of retired Forest Service employees. Opposition also stemmed from Idaho County officials, who expressed concerns over a potential loss of private-property tax base, and wanted to be “made whole.”
In November 2011, the Forest Service issued a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement analyzing a second proposal to obtain 39,000-acres of WPT land for approximately 39,000-acres of highly productive public lands on National Forests strictly in Idaho County. It’s important to note that an acre for acre exchange is illegal; all exchanges through the Forest Service administrative process must be based on fair-market value or dollar for dollar. Why the Forest Service wasted tax-payer dollars analyzing this second proposal is not clear.
In September 2013, the Idaho delegation sent a letter to the Forest Service requesting that the agency pause the current administrative process in favor of potential legislation. Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) is now spearheading the effort to possibly facilitate the transfer of public lands to Western Pacific Timber. It would be disappointing if legislation resulted from this effort. Congress has long held that the National Environmental Policy Act is the public involvement tool for decision-making. Indeed, Congress realized years ago it didn’t want to micro-manage federal agencies, and came up with guidance in laws on how agencies were to conduct exchanges in the rare instances they would seem to be warranted. Legislative exchanges violate sound policy, are usually backroom deals, and almost always result in a loss for the public.
In November 2015, Senator Risch moderated a public meeting in Idaho County, in which, over 300 members of the public attended. Strong opposition was raised to an exchange of any kind, be it administratively, or through legislation. In May 2016, Senator Risch announced he would not pursue federal legislation.
The upper Lochsa is a unique area with tremendous historical, cultural, ecological, and socio-economic value. They are traditional lands of the Nez Perce Tribe. Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery traveled through here. If restored, the lands could once again serve as an important wildlife corridor between the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and the predominantly roadless N. Fork Clearwater drainage. The upper Lochsa lands have historically provided crucial habitat for anadromous fish like Chinook salmon, too.
Exchanging public lands that contain important fish and wildlife habitat, and are used extensively by the public for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and other activities for the severely degraded private parcels, is not acceptable.
The ultimate solution is to purchase the private parcels in the upper Lochsa, and return them to public ownership. Some of the money needed for the purchase could come from the Land & Water Conservation Fund, a federal program established and controlled by Congress, for such acquisitions. The fund was recently renewed. Other money could come from private entities through donation, or a conservation trust. A complete purchase option serves the public interest.
Read the Op-Ed titled, Upper Lochsa Land Exchange would shortchange Idahoans.