Western Pacific Timber plans to log and subdivide portions of its 39,000 acres in Idaho's upper Clearwater Basin, after controversial land-swap negotiations with US Forest Service stalled last year when lawmakers intervened to control exchange process

LEWISTON, Idaho , July 8, 2014 () – With the proposed Lochsa Land Exchange in legislative limbo, Western Pacific Timber Co. is planning to log and subdivide portions of its 39,000 acres in the upper Clearwater Basin.

Spokesman Andy Hawes at Boise said Western Pacific has signed a contract with a Montana company to cut and haul timber near Moose Lake, and it is looking to subdivide one of its tracts adjacent to U.S. Highway 12 near Powell into eight to 10 plots.

"We have been at this so long, we felt it was time at this point, in order to keep the lights on so to speak, to generate some revenue from our Lochsa lands."

Western Pacific's property is mixed with U.S. Forest Service land in a checkerboard pattern at the headwaters of the Lochsa River. For the past several years, the company and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest officials have been working on an exchange that would swap the private property for a lesser amount of public land.

But that idea has proven to be wildly unpopular with the public, who fear they will lose access to the land once it becomes private.

"It's basically a bad idea for the country, the county, for everybody as far as I'm concerned," said Ray Anderson of Grangeville, the seat of Idaho County where many of the public trade parcels could come from.

The controversial process was stagnated last year when members of the Idaho congressional delegation asked the agency to stand down so they could pursue a legislative exchange. The delegation, led by Republican Sen. Jim Risch, said completing the trade via legislation offered more flexibility.

For example, under the federal process, the Forest Service would not have the ability to place access and development easements on the public land to be traded away. But access and development could be addressed through legislation.

The delegation, however, has not appeared eager to introduce legislation. John Sandy, chief of staff for Risch, said the senator has "too much other things going on."

While Hawes said the exchange could still happen, the company has to start making alternative plans.

"We are definitely still open to an exchange and definitely would support it but given our economic situation we may need to proceed with additional steps when it is clear nothing will begin to happen in the legislative process this year, or it's certain nothing will happen early next year."

He said if there is movement on the exchange, the value of the timber and any lots that are sold, would be taken into account.

The company's move toward subdividing some parcels was welcomed by Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt. The county is pushing its own version of the exchange in an effort to reduce the erosion of its private property tax base. But Brandt said commissioners always favored no exchange at all.

"I'm all for it," he said of the subdividing. "That is the economy of Idaho County. I would love to see a few million dollar homes go in up there, so let the building commence."

Anderson is happy the company will be logging, something he said is much needed across the forest, and he doesn't have a problem with the company developing its Lochsa property.

"They bought that land legally and it's their right to develop it and log it as they see fit. Most of us don't have anything against logging."

But he worries the politicians might simply wait until after the mid-term elections to introduce a bill.

"This is such a bad idea it would hurt their campaigns. They need to make a statement before the election to let us know where they stand."

Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell said he isn't thrilled with the prospect of the company subdividing some of its property. From the agency's perspective, the idea behind an exchange is to protect the headwaters of the Lochsa and to get rid of the checkerboard property lines that makes management difficult. But he said the agency will continue to stand aside and give time for Risch, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrador to contemplate legislation.

"We haven't set any deadline on our patience with the delegation. They have asked us to stand down and we are standing down."

Brazell is not hopeful the administrative process could be revived if the legislative effort fails.

"For us the legislative side seems to fix a lot of concerns and issues we were hearing from the public. If it went back to the administrative side, we would still have all of those issues facing us and I'm not sure we could get past them because we heard from so many people about them."

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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(c)2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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