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Idaho officials pitch land swap in Lochsa River basin

Idaho officials are pitching a north-central Idaho land exchange involving a private timber company and the U.S. Forest Service that could result in Idaho receiving deed to some federal lands.

The proposal calls for Western Pacific Timber to deed 38,000 acres in the Upper Lochsa basin to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service would then deed selected federal lands to Idaho to be overseen by the Idaho Land Board.

The value of the land received by Idaho would equal the value of the land the Forest Service receives from the timber company. Idaho would pay Western Pacific Timber an amount equal to the value of the land the company deeds to the Forest Service.

Idaho would use money from the recent sales of commercial and residential properties.

David Groeschl, acting director of the Idaho Department of Lands, told the Lewiston Tribune that the proposal is still in the exploratory phase.

“Right now we are trying to get a sense of where people are at,” he said. “We’ve met with the (Nez Perce) Tribe, and we are going to continue meeting with folks like recreation groups. Our goal is to continue to meet with them and explore if there is enough support. If there is, we will take it to the (Idaho) Land Board. If not, we won’t even waste their time.”

The Central Idaho Land Exchange, as it’s called, follows the failed Lochsa Land Exchange in the same area that collapsed without enough local support.

One of the problems with that deal was that some locals feared that if federal public land went to the timber company in a swap, it would be closed to the public.

The new proposed deal is significantly different, state officials said, with the introduction of the state of Idaho as a player in the transaction. That allows a deal where the timber company will come out without any of the land in the proposal.

Some of the lands the timber company currently owns and is part of the proposal includes sites that hold historical value because they’re tied to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The timber company lands also contain significant habitat important for fish and wildlife.

State officials said that if the proposed deal goes through, those once-private lands would be accessible to the public for recreation.

But Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater is wary.

“This amounts to a state land grab of national forests,” he said. “This is not really an exchange, but rather it sets a dangerous precedent in which national forests owned by all Americans are sold to a state. Returning the Upper Lochsa checkerboard to public ownership is important, but this is not the path forward.”

Idaho County officials are also wary of the possible trade because it would mean the loss of tax-generating private land. The proposed deal includes the county possibly receiving money for a set amount of time to offset the loss of tax revenue.

“In my mind, Idaho County is going to lose, period,” said Skip Brandt, chairman of the Idaho County Commission. “A five-year, 10-year subsidy program is better than nothing, and if we had some environmental group buy it and just give to the Forest Service, it would be nothing.”

Western Pacific Timber has been trying to sell the land for some time. State officials say that the company could divide the land and sell it off in pieces to multiple private landowners.

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