Letters From the West

Opponents wave bloody shirt over Lochsa land exchange

This sign on the Clearwater National Forest shows how the federal and private land is a "checkerboard." (Western Pacific Timber Photo)

This sign on the Clearwater National Forest shows how the federal and private land is a “checkerboard.” (Western Pacific Timber Photo)

A proposal by Idaho’s two Republican senators and Rep. Raul Labrador to start talks on writing a bill to exchange of 39,000 acres of private timber in the Lochsa River watershed for national forest has opponents out in force.

Two letters in Monday’s Idaho Statesman suggested the proposal was nefarious because the private land is owned by billionaire timberman and developer Tim Blixseth. And one suggested that conservation groups like the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited were part of a secret conspiracy to jam the exchange down Idahoans’ throats because they hired timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey.

This tactic, know as waving the bloody shirt, is often popular. But it is not always enlightening.

First, Blixseth no longer owns Western Pacific Timber, the company that owns the private Lochsa timberland. He was forced to give up ownership in 2012 due to defaulting on loans.

But Mark Rey — the former undersecretary of agriculture in the Bush administration, former chief of staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee when chaired by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, and long a voice of the timber industry — has been hired as a lobbyist by the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited.

Gary Macfarland, executive director of Friends of the Clearwater, whose communications director wrote one of the letters on his own time and not as a representative of the group, guided me to the website Open Secrets, where it showed that Rey had indeed been paid $15,000 by the ICL, $30,000 by TU and $42,000 by Western Pacific.

“Its just one of those things that looks a little fishy,” Macfarland said.

Rey worked efforts to protect the Boulder-White Clouds and other issues for ICL, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the statewide group. He did not work on the land exchange, which ICL has not supported.

Working with Rey helps ICL see itself and its issues from other sets of eyes, he said.

“Some people will tell Mark Rey something different than they would tell me,” Johnson said.

As for the attempt to demonize them for hiring Rey, Johnson gets it. He worked for the Sierra Club on the Northwest timber campaign where he waved Rey’s timber credentials in the same way.

“I helped demonize him,” Johnson said.

The land itself is intermixed with national forest land in a checkerboard that goes back historically to the Northern Pacific Railroad land grant. Most agree it and the federal land intermixed would be better managed as a single block.

The land was largely clearcut in the 1980s and 1990s and opponents often refer to it as “hacked over” lands. But today most of it has young trees covering most it.

Andy Hawes, an attorney for Western Pacific in Boise, said they went to the senators when the Forest Service told them that it could not do a complicated easement requested by Idaho County to protect access and prevent development on the lands it gets in the trade. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Rep. Labrador said in a letter to Forest Chief Tom Tidwell, obtained by the Idaho Statesman, he should pause its current administrative land exchange process so they can try to put together a bill that would satisfy the many groups involved in the process.

“We believe that these interest can be better reconciled by the additional authorities and protections that could be embodied in an exchange directed by authorizing legislation,” Risch and Crapo said in the letter.

Macfarland sees little value in a land exchange. Instead, he would like the Forest Service to consider buying the private land. Idaho County would hate that because it would lose the property tax that is now paid on that land.

Johnson said both senators brought the issue up with him when he was in Washington earlier this month.

“We have not entered into any conversation with anybody,” Johnson said. “It’s fraught with problems.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West