LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) -- Officials with the Clearwater National Forest are floating a plan to buy a big chunk of private timber land in the upper Lochsa River basin as one way to curry public favor for a land exchange with a private company.
The proposed purchase is just one of several options outlined in an environmental impact statement issued by the agency Monday on the so-called Lochsa Land Exchange. The document, more than a year in the making, offers four separate alternatives for a land trade that could put 40,000 acres of private land with ecological and cultural significance into the public realm.
One alternative calls for the government to buy the entire 40,000 acres, while another suggests obtaining the acreage through a mix of purchases and swaps. Each of the alternatives would reduce the amount of public land proposed in an earlier version of the deal.
The land deal has drawn criticism since the agency first proposed two years ago trading 28,000 acres of public land for private property owned by Western Pacific Timber Co. Opposition led by a group of retired U.S. Forest Service employees managed to kill the deal. Critics panned the agency's plan to trade tracts of popular federal land for remote acreage owned by the company.
In response, the draft environmental impact statement cuts the maximum number of federal acres that could be traded from 28,000 to about 18,000.
"Eighteen-thousand acres is close to what we think we need for a value-for-value exchange," said project leader Teresa Trulock. "We think that amount is still doable for land for land."
The option preferred by the forest service calls for trading 6,200 acres of small, isolated tracts scattered across three national forests for an equal value of private land. It would also count on about $2 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy up the rest of the private land. The fund is supported by money collected from offshore oil and gas leases and is used for conservation, but forest officials concede the battle to win money from the fund is competitive.
Another option would be spending three years trying to raise some of the $2 million from private donors, conservation groups and other sources, said Clearwater Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell.
"There could be a lot of energy in the public to help us find those funds outside of the Land and Water Conservation Fund," Brazell told the Lewiston Tribune.
The timber company bought the checkerboard land from Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber five years ago with the intention of trading it with the forest service.
WPT purchased the checkerboard of land, which was once owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad, from Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber.
"We wanted to do an exchange and in good faith, not to touch these properties. And we haven't," Andy Hawes, general counsel for the company, told the Moscow Daily News.
Critics of the previous proposal are still digesting the study and options.
Idaho County leaders say they are still concerned about the prospect of losing an estimated $80,000 in tax dollars collected annually from the private lands. They remain skeptical of a one-time payment designed to offset that annual loss.
"Realistically that land is worth two school teachers in Idaho County every year forever," Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt said. "So Idaho County is not too excited about this thing moving forward unless we have a long-term solution."
The public has 90 days to comment on the document and the agency is planning open house events in Moscow, Elk River and Elk City in January.
Copyright 2010 The AP.