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Published May 12, 2010, 01:28 PM

Group: Forest Service should buy land, dump swap

MOSCOW, Idaho — Opponents of a proposed northern Idaho land swap say it would be a poor bargain to exchange mature, publicly-owned forests for logged-over ground on the Idaho-Montana border owned by luxury resort promoter and former billionaire Tim Blixseth.

MOSCOW, Idaho — Opponents of a proposed northern Idaho land swap say it would be a poor bargain to exchange mature, publicly-owned forests for logged-over ground on the Idaho-Montana border owned by luxury resort promoter and former billionaire Tim Blixseth.

The group, including Friends of the Palouse Ranger District, told the U.S. Forest Service in a letter it should just buy 40,000 acres of private ground in the Upper Lochsa River Basin near Lolo Pass, owned by Portland, Ore.-based Western Pacific Timber.

Western Pacific owners include Tim Blixseth, who founded the swank Yellowstone Club in southwestern Montana before handing it over to his ex-wife after their divorce.

The trade, originally proposed five years ago, foresees swapping Blixseth’s timber land for up to 28,000 acres of scattered parcels of U.S. Forest Service land in the Idaho Panhandle, Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests.

But the groups this week told Rick Brazell, supervisor of the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests, to dump the exchange. They argue cash from the Land and Water Conserva-tion Fund, a federal repository for offshore oil and natural gas drilling royalties, instead should be used to buy Blixseth’s property.

“Public opposition against the proposed land exchange is growing among Idaho resi-dents,” the groups wrote, the Lewiston Tribune reported. “We would like to suggest the op-tion of purchasing the Upper Lochsa using the Lands and Water Conservation Fund either outright or in a phased approach.”

Others behind the letter include Friends of the Clearwater, Latah County Farm Bureau, Idaho for Wildlife, Western Lands Project and the Lands Council.

Western Pacific’s property is arranged in a checkerboard pattern amid federal land, a his-torical relic dating back to the 19th century as railroads received territory from the federal government. The incentives sped development of transportation routes, but in modern times have complicated management.

Money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund often helps resolve such snarls, though such deals can take years, due to limited resources and intense competition for the cash.

Currently, President Obama’s 2011 budget sets aside $2 million from the federal fund to buy a sliver of Blixseth’s 40,000 acres targeted for the exchange. The agency has also asked for $8 million more for future years to make additional acquisitions, but even that would still leave about 30,000 acres up for exchange.

The Forest Service, which confirmed Tuesday it’s seen the groups’ letter, wants Western Pacific’s land because of its importance as habitat to steelhead and bull trout, Canada lynx and critical elk winter range. It also has historical value; explorers Lewis and Clark trekked through in the early 1800s.

The Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement on the transaction could be re-leased as early as July.

“We’re analyzing a purchase alternative as one alternative to acquiring the lands,” Teresa Trulock, the Clearwater National Forest’s project manager for the exchange proposal, told The Associated Press Tuesday.

Brazell has yet to identify a preferred alternative, Trulock said.

Blixseth gained fame by founding the opulent 13,600-acre Yellowstone Club resort that be-came embroiled in lawsuits over loans-gone-sour. He ran it until 2008, when Edra Blixseth took over amid a messy divorce.

A private equity firm bought the club in 2009 for $115 million, a fraction of its $450 million offer a year earlier.

For years, Western Pacific and Blixseth have been counting on the northern Idaho land exchange to get access to timberland dispersed across the region. If it succeeds, it aims to hire logging companies to harvest wood, then ship it to local mills as demand for building supplies rises with a recovering economy, said Andy Hawes, general counsel for Western Pacific.

With opposition to the exchange, Hawes says Blixseth is open to a cash-and-land deal. He also doesn’t expect to get all 28,000 acres.

“As long as we could get some parcels in central Idaho that were fairly close, that’s all that really mattered for us,” he told the AP Tuesday. “We resigned ourselves to the reality that, at some level, there would be a cash component.”

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