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Land Exchange is Loser

Public is ill served by hearing schedule

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It was just before Thanksgiving 2008 when the U.S. Forest Service announced the initial comment period on the Lochsa Land Exchange. For most, this news slipped by unnoticed. Only a few who had been intimately aware of the loss involved with the federal land exchange program responded. The comment period ended in early January 2009.

Two months later the Latah County commissioners called a public meeting in Moscow, requesting the Forest Service and Western Pacific Timber present their proposal. The state Employment Office building was filled with citizens outraged the exchange was being forced upon them.

Over the next six years, numerous shifts of Forest Service management personnel occurred. Two environmental impact statements were published, both indicating the project could not be justified and that public sentiment was against the exchange.

Tim Blixseth, founder of Western Pacific Timber, was under heavy scrutiny and litigation due to alleged financial improprieties related to the bankruptcy of his Yellowstone Club and other debacles. He was demoted in WPT by his business partners.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which once favored the exchange, withdrew its support due to public outcry. Retired Forest Service employees, public interest groups, environmental groups, outdoor organizations and forest owner associations decried the exchange as a rip-off, not making either good business or conservation sense, and not in the public interest.

So, WPT hired two Washington, D.C., "insiders"—retired Sen. Larry Craig and his ex-chief-of-staff, Mark Rey - to promote the exchange legislatively through Idaho's congressional delegation. They asked Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim Risch to distribute a draft bill in August 2014. Risch refused but kept his options open.

Blixseth went to jail shortly thereafter for liquidating assets against court order. He's still there, not yet having satisfied the judge's request for a proper accounting. Until October, it seemed the exchange was dead with all the accusations of fraudulent activity surrounding some of the primaries of WPT and the flaws of the exchange itself.

The Idaho County Free Press then announced Risch would hold a public hearing on the Lochsa Land Exchange on Monday, Nov. 23, in Grangeville. Risch claimed no change of stance on the issue.

Thursday, Risch's office changed the hearing date to Tuesday, Nov. 24. Those invited include retired USFS Chief Dale Bosworth and Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. Otter contributed to the draft legislation last year, giving up state ownership of the Lewis and Clark historic camp site Glade Creek to the feds, if the bill is adopted. It is no small irony that this meeting, like the comment period announcement in 2008, occurs a few days before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holidays.

Apparently Risch will be at the Grangeville Elementary School to moderate, joined by Otter, representation from WPT, off-road vehicle users, the Nez Perce tribe, Grangeville businesses, forest service retirees and, oddly, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell, whose signature started this mess, is glaringly absent from the panel. A two hour meeting will allow for short presentations from each representative, followed by public comments held to two minutes each, alternating pro/con/neutral on the exchange. Lengthy written "testimony" can be submitted by mail until Dec. 11, according to the agenda. It's not clear if this is an actual hearing that will be videotaped or if other hearings are planned.

Again, the opportunity to comment on the Lochsa Land Exchange may slip by most people who are focused on their Thanksgiving plans. Why would a public servant schedule a hearing that inhibits participation by the most important public stakeholders?

Since the Lochsa Land Exchange has no rationale, why is the hearing happening at all? Risch? Otter? Please take the stand.

Others comment in writing to Risch at: 483 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510-1206

Marilyn Beckett is a resident of Moscow who has long opposed the exchange. This op-ed originally appeared Nov. 9 in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News