Freedom of Information Act Request to the Forest Service, spring 2020
In April of 2020 the land exchange surfaced in the news because the State of Idaho is continuing to pursue this idea. This past spring, FOC submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service to understand how the federal government is involved with the Idaho’s pursuit of federally owned lands. We found that so far, the Forest Service is only involved at one of the highest levels. As evident from the below email thread, Governor Little bypassed officials at both the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests and Region 1 and went straight to the Under Secretary at the Department of Agriculture (check out the fourth and fifth pages of below email thread).RE_ Central Idaho Land Exchange(2)
The Forest Service at the Region 1 and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests are assuming a neutral stance, but appear to not have known about this meeting.
Department of Lands 2018 Public Records Request
Friends of the Clearwater requested public records about this revived land exchange from the State of Idaho Department of Lands in May of 2018. Below are some summaries of the agency’s response to that request. Various documents are posted in the links listed at the bottom of the page, and an electronic copy is available on file at our office for anyone who would like it.
“The following is a brief explanation of the State wants to do:
Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) is interested in the possibility of purchasing Forest Service (FS) lands that meet their endowment forest management criteria. The lands that will be selected are from those FS lands that were identified for (by) the WPT and Forest Service exchange. In order for the Forest Service to use these funds to purchase the Lochsa lands, federal legislation would be required. The legislation would direct the FS to sell the chosen lands to the IDL and then to use those funds to purchase the Lochsa Lands.”
– Sandra Mitchell, Executive Director of the Idaho Recreation Council, in an email to Craig Foss, Idaho Department of Land’s Forestry and Fire Division Administrator, on January 15, 2018.
How is the Central Idaho Land Exchange different from the Lochsa Land Exchange?
The same idea and the same lands are involved with the Central Idaho Land Exchange as had been involved with the Lochsa Land Exchange. The only differences are who would receive the public forests that the Forest Service would deed away and that there is money involved because a third party has entered the deal. The Lochsa Land Exchange was a direct land-exchange proposal. Western Pacific Timber (WPT) would have deeded its logged lands (owned amidst our public National Forest System lands in a checkerboard pattern in the Upper Lochsa Basin) to the Forest Service (and thus to the public). In return, the Forest Service would have deeded other National Forest System lands—various publicly owned parcels outside the checkerboard area in four different counties—to WPT. The public, through the Forest Service, would have acquired the logged, checkerboard parcels, and WPT would have gained forested parcels of National Forest System land. Public opposition stopped this first proposal.
In the Central Idaho Land Exchange, the public, through the Forest Service, would still acquire WPT’s logged checkerboard parcels, but the State of Idaho, through the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) and the Land Board, would gain forested parcels of National Forest System lands and WPT would walk away with cash. The proposal that IDL has fashioned with Western Pacific Timber involves a circular transfer of lands and money. First, IDL would deposit money—approximately the value of Western Pacific Timber’s lands—into escrow. When the money enters escrow, Western Pacific Timber would deed its lands to the federal government and the U.S. Forest Service would deed federal public lands to the IDL. When the Forest Service has deeded these public lands to IDL, the money held in escrow then would be released to Western Pacific Timber. Western Pacific Timber walks away with cash, IDL gains forested National Forest System lands, and the Upper Lochsa Basin would no longer have checkerboard ownership because the Western Pacific Timber’s logged parcels would become National Forest System land, owned by the public.
(Diagram excerpt from attachment in March 9, 2018 email from Craig Foss, IDL Division Administrator, Forestry and Fire, to Sandra Mitchell, Executive Director of Idaho Recreation Council). As noted in November 22, 2016 phone-conference notes attempting to distinguish this proposal, this “[i]sn’t a land exchange–it’s a land sale.” This proposal involves the same lands and the same idea–giving away forested federal public land to gain logged land in the Upper Lochsa Basin.
If this proposal is the same exchange of lands, with only a new entity to receive federal public lands, why the new name?
IDL and WPT renamed this proposal because they need public support and the public was opposed to the “Lochsa Land Exchange.” When IDL officials had a November 3, 2017 phone call about this proposal, Tom Schultz summarized his meeting with the Idaho delegation. Mr. Schultz, after meeting with the Idaho delegation to Congress, reported that if the county commissioners support this proposal, Risch would support it. Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt was the only commissioner mentioned in the notes for this phone call, but Risch’s office would require “a public meeting” to gauge support. Unclear is how accessible this meeting will be to those outside of Idaho County or whether Risch would seek support from more than the Idaho County Commissioners, as Clearwater, Latah, and Benewah Counties have land that also could be impacted by this exchange.
IDL and WPT were concerned that they could not generate the support needed if the public sees the same basic land-exchange concept proposed with the same name. In what appears to be Craig Foss’s (IDL Division Administrator, Forestry and Fire) notes in a phone conference with Leanne Marten (USFS Region 1 Forester) and others in January of 2017, the lands at issue had already been analyzed through a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), and public concerns are what stopped the process, “So we need to be extremely careful in our messaging this round.” The “messaging” has been a constant concern—phone call notes from November 2016 attribute Western Pacific Timber with wanting to jettison the name “Lochsa Land Exchange” because the party to receive the federal public land would now be different and the failed “Lochsa Land Exchange” exchange had a “negative connotation.” An exchange where the Forest Service deeds away public forested land for the land in the Upper Lochsa Basin is the unpopular concept. As explained above, the biggest difference is the recipient. So, IDL and Western Pacific Timber gave this proposal a shiny new title.
Wait…above you’ve cited phone calls from 2016? But, I first heard about this land-exchange revival when I read about it in the paper in April of 2018. How long has this been revival been in the works?
The land-exchange proposal was revived in the fall of 2016 by our very own Idaho governor after Idaho Senator Jim Risch indicated he would not pursue this unpopular exchange, but before the Forest Service officially dropped the administrative process for this project. On May 12, 2016, Senator Risch sent a letter to Chief Tom Tidwell, then Chief of the Forest Service, indicating that Senator Risch would not pursue legislation for the Lochsa Land Exchange proposal because 97 percent of the constituents who contacted his office about the proposal opposed it. The Forest Service published a notice in the Federal Register on June 30, 2017, over a year later, officially dropping the administrative process for the proposal.
The land-exchange proposal was revived by Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter after Senator Risch indicated he would not pursue legislation, but before the Forest Service officially dropped the administrative process. In a letter that Governor Otter sent to Chief Tidwell, dated September 7, 2016, he proposed that the State of Idaho acquire the lands identified for the Lochsa Land Exchange proposal. Worth noting is that in the first three paragraphs of this letter, all Governor Otter discusses is the timber value of our National Forest Lands. Since late 2016, the Idaho Department of Lands and Western Pacific Timber have been meeting with each other and sometimes with the Forest Service in the meetings referenced above and as evidenced throughoutthe public-records responses posted in the links below. They just haven’t mentioned it to the broader public until 2018.
But, the Idaho Department of Lands says that the public lands going into IDL ownership would remain open for recreational use and that these lands can never be sold—so what is there to worry about?
In the April 14, 2018 Lewiston Tribune article titled “State eyes revival of Lochsa land exchange,” the acting director of the Idaho Department of Lands, David Groeschl, indicated that “The federal land that would be traded to the state would remain public and open to recreation” and “state law forbids the agency from selling its timber holdings.” There is more to both of these statements, which makes them technically correct but also misleading, because the lands might not always be publicly accessible, nor might these lands be state-owned public lands in perpetuity.
Firstly, public access is not a priority for the Idaho Department of Lands. This agency acquires lands to produce revenue, as IDL Acting Director David Groeschl clarified in a January 2, 2018 email: “As you know, IDL’s primary focus for reinvestment of Land Bank funds is to acquire timberlands or farmlands that will strengthen the performance of those asset types, especially given our mission of maximizing long-term revenue to the endowment beneficiaries.” That IDL is not seeking federal public lands for recreation is further supported by statements by Craig Foss to Leanne Marten (Region 1 Forester) and Cheryl Probert (Nez Perce Clearwater Forest Supervisor) among others in a March 28, 2018 email: “I’m attaching the LEX Concept one-pager, and the Maps showing the FS lands IDL has considered and those acres meeting our IDL acquisition criteria for timberlands. These acres are broken out by county.” The maps of the federal public lands on IDL’s timber wish list that were attached to this email include a regionwide map, and maps of Clearwater, Idaho, Latah, and Benewah Counties. Because IDL is seeking to acquire federal public land for timber production, public access would depend entirely upon whether the state is actively logging it. In notes from a November 22, 2016 phone conference, an IDL employee confirmed, “We do allow public access, as long as no management activity is taking place.” So public access is conditioned upon logging.
Secondly, although Idaho cannot sell lands classified as timber holdings, this is no guarantee that Idaho must always keep these lands or that lands IDL acquires will always be public. “The State of Idaho could never sell those lands!” is only partially true. The statute that IDL has offered to support this is Idaho Code section 58-133(1):
“The state board of land commissioners may select and purchase, lease, receive by donation, hold in trust, or in any manner acquire for and in the name of the state of Idaho such tracts or leaseholds of land as it shall deem proper, and after inventory and classification as provided herein, shall determine the best use or uses of said lands: provided, however, that all state-owned lands classified as chiefly valuable for forestry, reforestation, recreation and watershed protection are hereby reserved from sale and set aside as state forests.”
Reading the prohibition in context, Idaho cannot sell lands that are “classified as chiefly valuable for forestry….” This prohibition doesn’t apply if IDL reclassifies these lands as no longer valuable for forestry, and IDL does not offer that guarantee. Additionally, this provision would not apply to land that the state exchanges away, as clarified in an email exchange between and IDL public information officer and Idaho’s lieutenant governor. When the IDL employee confirmed that lands IDL acquires couldn’t be sold, Lt. Governor Little asked, “Can they be traded?” to which the IDL employee responded, “Yes, we can still enter into land exchanges to trade out of timberland. We just cannot sell timberland at auction.” Just because Idaho cannot sell lands it classifies as still-valuable timberlands does not mean the state is prevented from trading away these lands. So, any federal public lands that Idaho acquires will not always be open to the public, and they may not be kept in public ownership by IDL and Idaho in perpetuity.
Below are the actual records we requested.
October – December 2016
Go back to the main land exchange page.