Say Bye-Bye to Lots of BLM Land in North Idaho?
Proposed land exchange would benefit southern Idaho, but at a cost to North Idaho. Is it worth it?
M3 Companies, a real estate development company based in Eagle, Idaho, wants to build a 6,000-acre, 17,000-resident planned community in this fast-growing area near Boise, and it wants 815 acres of adjacent land owned by the Bureau of Land Management in order to do it. So what’s that got to do with North Idaho?
M3 is willing to trade the BLM almost 12,000 acres of other land it owns to sweeten the deal, and because proposed land exchanges must be equal, it has identified about 8,500 acres of BLM land in six northern Idaho counties that it would receive as part of the exchange; land it would then turn around and sell to Idaho Forest Group, a local timber company. And, to be sure this version of the deal cannot be turned down by the BLM like their last two, M3 is trying to work with the public to create a widely supported piece of legislation which will congressionally mandate the exchange.
The proposal has its proponents, like the Bonner County Economic Development Council, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Senator Joyce Broadsword, but has also seen significant opposition from both the Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene tribes, who are concerned about access for hunting and fishing. And others such as the Lands Council of Spokane are not ready to jump on board with a full endorsement of the exchange, which removes a large portion of local land out of the public domain in exchange for a benefit to southern Idaho. Bonner County would lose up to 6,208 acres, over half of its total 10,730 acres, of BLM land.
Some who have expressed concerns include the Coeur d’Alene office of the BLM.
“We never expected to exchange all the land in one deal,” says Stephanie Snook of the BLM’s Coeur d’Alene District, the local BLM office. In their 2007 Resource Management Plan the agency developed a list of possible lands for exchange in the district, and M3 has chosen all the parcels on the list for their proposed exchange. “Our [forest management] plan is for 10 or 15 years; these parcels were chosen to meet exchange needs for a long time,” explains Snook. “We wanted to do land adjustments to benefit the people up here in North Idaho.”
For the BLM district, ideal land adjustments (exchanges) are local.
“[M3’s proposed] exchange might not be in the public interest for people in North Idaho,” explains Snook. “But the public is not involved yet so we don’t know. There are a lot of steps that have to take place before we are ready for an exchange, and right now this isn’t on our plate.” Due to limited staff and an already scheduled workload for this year, “the BLM has not yet spent any time or effort to verify the availability of these parcels.”
The BLM’s listing process can be counter-intuitive at first, but ends up making sense. Every 15 years each BLM district requests public input and rewrites their Resource Management Plan. During this three- to four-year process, the agency makes a list of lands to retain and a list of lands for possible adjustment. Once the RMP is passed, if the agency is to consider an exchange that involves a parcel on the RMP’s retention list, the agency must spend one to two years attempting to amend the plan, or must have Congress pass legislation mandating that the BLM trade that parcel. (The 815 acres of BLM land that M3 wants to develop near Eagle, Idaho is on the Four Rivers BLM District’s list of lands to retain.) So when the BLM is initially developing the plan they try to include any lands they might later consider giving to townships or other land agencies, or trading with private entities for land that would provide greater benefits to the public. And since the agency doesn’t expect to exchange all the parcels on the list for possible adjustment, they leave the costly process of verifying the availability of a parcel for later, when the BLM decides to do an exchange.
Proponents say the proposed 75 parcels for exchange are scattered and hard to reach, which meet some of the BLM’s requirements for including a parcel on that list of land for potential exchange.
But Snook says her agency is very able to manage these fragmented lands for multiple use, and has been successfully doing so for over 50 years.
“We’re used to managing these scattered lands up north. To somebody else elsewhere”—like down in southern Idaho where the BLM has huge tracts of land—“it looks like it’s not worth keeping, but these lands we have we think are valuable” says Snook. “[They’re] valuable to different people. How do you appraise wildlife habitat, a clean stream, how do you put a dollar value on open space?”
Snook expressed concern that the exchanged land would no longer be legally required to be managed for recreation, fish and wildlife habitat. “There are other values than the dollar value and those are what we manage for,” says Snook, explaining that the agency cuts less timber in elk wintering grounds, and nurtures rare stands of aspen; the agency’s focus is not just timber production. “And right now with the timber market being depressed, the value of these lands will be less than it was five years ago, so if M3 has 11,000 acres in southern Idaho, and they want to trade it for 9,000, now is a good time.”
“My big concern is that these northern parcels will be processed without an appropriate level of environmental assessment and by appropriate, I mean site-specific” says Jerry Boggs, an associate of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance of Priest River, Idaho.
“There is a potential, an unknown probability, that some of those parcels contain important habitats, sensitive habitats, rare habitats, habitats that might be part of a corridor used for travel by important wildlife,” says Boggs. “Those potentials can only be discovered by an objective ‘boots-on-the-ground’ evaluation and that would seem to be a time and labor expensive proposition that the proponent would want to avoid given the large number of individual parcels in the northern Panhandle.” Boggs originally found out about the exchange from a presentation given to the Coeur d’Alene BLM District Resources Advisory Council, a broad interest citizen group tasked with making recommendations to the BLM District Field Manager on projects such as this proposed exchange.
Recently, the BLM’s Coeur d’Alene Resources Advisory Council issued a letter to the BLM District Manager stating that they recommend the exchange go through the normal land exchange process instead of through legislation:
“The Coeur d’Alene district RAC is very concerned over any legislated process involving this exchange. If this proposal continues to evolve this RAC strongly recommends that the process be accomplished through the BLM land exchange process, be completely transparent, and embrace a full NEPA analysis that includes public input.” The RAC is a 15 member council representing wide interests—from local timber and grazing to recreation plus issues for environmentalists, public servants, and tribal officlals; members are reviewed and appointed by the federal Secretary of the Interior.
If the legislated exchange requires that a deadline be met, according to the BLM’s handbook, environmental reviews and other legal obligations do not have to be completed, even if the exchange legislation states that these laws be followed. This happened in the I-90 exchange.
Joe Hinson from the Northwest Natural Resource Group, an Idaho based corporation that is facilitating the exchange, has taken these potentialities into account. He says that appropriate environmental review will not be truncated by a timeline; instead the legislation will require the full environmental analysis process be completed before the exchang is allowed.
Despite contrary reports in the press, the Lands Council, a Spokane based environmental group, has only given conditional support for the exchange. “I would say our support is conditional, depending on the outcome of the full environmental analysis,” says Mike Petersen of the Lands Council. “We believe it can make sense to consolidate land into larger blocks, but that the full impacts of what will happen on the traded parcels and their values must be disclosed.”
A full environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act would include the agency’s discretion to decline the exchange if the public and the agency’s specialists find the cumulative effects of the exchange to not be in the public’s best interest. The current form of the legislation does not allow for such discretion, and NEPA allows for legislated land exchanges to be exempt from all or some of NEPA.
“We have said we want a full NEPA analysis,” says Petersen. “We are interested in looking at the whole package and would have to see the legislation before we would oppose or support.”
Public Access Issues
Other folks are concerned the BLM land in their backyards will become some kind of gated suburban development, or private land that won’t allow tribes or the public access to the land for spiritual, recreational, or hunting and fishing purposes.
Hinson, who has been working with the Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene tribes and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is trying to meet these concerns. The current version of the legislation will require that tribal members and the public will have access to the parcels for hunting and fishing in perpetuity.
As far as future suburban developments are concerned, the Idaho Forest Group says it would consider having the legislation require conservation easements on the parcels of land; however the company does not want to pay for development rights and then have the land’s value drop because of the easement. “We’re okay with the limited rights as long as they’re addressed in the appraisal process,” says Bob Boeh, the Vice President of the Idaho Forest Group.
What about the public losing their ability to participate in the land management process as well as their ability to access documents pertaining to actual management practices?
Boeh cited that the public can get involved in modifying the terms of the Forest Practices Act of the state of Idaho, which sets the regulations for private timber management. He stresses the public would get to determine the management practices for M3’s land down in southern Idaho.
Boeh adds that folks who are living near their company’s lands are informed about any future plans. “Part of our standard practice is to contact the neighbors to inform them about what we’re going to do.” Boeh explained that they take neighbors’ concerns and modify their plan for that parcel accordingly. “We always try to be a good neighbor and that’s part of being a good neighbor, letting them know what you’re up to... it’s a long standing practice.”
Proponents of the exchange say that the deal will enhance local economic growth by increasing the amount of timber produced on these parcels, thus producing jobs and helping the counties generate more income tax and sales tax revenue.
“Transfer of the (North Idaho BLM) land will allow it to become part of the commercial timberland that will support sustainable jobs in our communities,” said Karl Dye, executive director of the Bonner County Economic Development Corp. “At the same time, we are confident that the Idaho Forest Group will manage this land responsibly, maintaining the wildlife and recreation opportunities offered on these parcels.”
The Lands Council also states they feel the Idaho Forest Group will practice sustainable forestry on the land.
Addressing the issue of what will happen in the future to the land if it is sold to a company who manages the land for short term economic gain, Boeh says “We’re in business for the long term. We own four mills up here; our business is to be here for the long term.”
Additionally, Bonner County may not make more money in property taxes from the exchange. The federal government is required to pay counties $2.40 per acre of federal land under the “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” program, and that is about $.40 more than Bonner County receives from property taxes on commercial timberland. So, from a property tax perspective, Bonner County makes more money from federal lands than from privately held commercial timberlands.
M3’s North Idaho-West Foothill’s land exchange is not the only proposed federal land exchange affecting the Panhandle; others include the Hope-Sagle Land Exchange and the Upper Lochsa Land Exchange. The latter currently involves 28,212 acres of Forest Service land in northern Idaho, including over 700 acres along Hwy 41 north of Blanchard in Bonner County. One of the requirements of an environmental analysis is to examine the cumulative effects of all land exchanges and use agency discretion to protect the environment if the effects cannot be mitigated by terms of the trade.
“Land trades that are expected to be particularly controversial may... be taken through the legislative route and, as demonstrated by the I-90 Exchange, stopping or changing these proposals can be extremely difficult for citizen activists,” says Janine Blaeloch of the Western Lands Project, a federal land exchange watchdog group. “Even more than administrative exchanges, legislated land deals often sail through with little or no public awareness. ”
Please see maps of the proposed land area to be traded at the above, right hand side of this page. High quality PDF files are available for download, just a little further down the right side of the page.