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Land swap could benefit Cd'A

by Alecia Warren
| June 23, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - There might be more to the land exchange than meets the eye.

A proposed land exchange that would hand public land in North?Idaho to an Arizona development company could end up benefiting the Coeur d'Alene economy, according to a consultant hired by the company.

"Here (in North Idaho) the benefits are a little less tangible (than in southern Idaho), but they're there," said Joe Hinson, speaking on behalf of M3 Companies at a meeting at The Press office on Tuesday.

Some concerns have been raised about the West Boise Foothills proposed land exchange, in which M3 would acquire 9,706 BLM acres scattered throughout North Idaho. The company is particularly interested in 815 of those acres north of Eagle, which would be used for a multi-use development.

"It's our first foray into Idaho," Hinson said.

In exchange for the North Idaho acreage, M3 would give up 11,038 of its own acres in Boise County, much of it scrub brush, to the Bureau of Land Management.

Some organizations have questioned how much North Idaho would gain from the deal, including the Kootenai Environmental Alliance at a May meeting.

But North Idaho and M3 could both benefit, Hinson said.

Aside from the Eagle acreage, the land M3 gains in the exchange would be sold to Coeur d'Alene company Idaho Forest Group, which would harvest timber there for its mills.

"More timber will be harvested than there is now. You're getting, you're not really giving up," Hinson said.

The bulk of that acreage lies in Bonner County, said Robert Boeh, Idaho Forest Group vice president, which is close to three of its mills.

"This just adds to our base," Boeh said. "When we own the trees ourselves, we have more control over when we harvest and how we harvest."

Hinson added when the land becomes private, it will be subject to property tax and bring in an estimated average $2 an acre for Kootenai County.

The acreage the BLM would acquire in southern Idaho is valuable, he said, because of its wildlife and proximity to popular recreational areas.

"This whole area has become Boise's playground," he said.

IFG and M3 are working to address the biggest concerns about the project, Boeh said: Loss of tribal rights and public access on land that will be turned over to M3.

Boeh said IFG is currently in negotiations with the Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai tribes over a land management policy that would retain tribal rights.

There would also be conditions in the land exchange maintaining public access, he said.

"We live here and work long term, and we don't want to leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth," Boeh said. "We want this to be win-win."

Hinson said there are hopes the proposed exchange will move through the resource analysis and public review of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process quickly.

The company also hopes to expedite the administrative process by obtaining approval through a federal omnibus lands bill, Hinson said.

"Congress may consider that later this year, but more likely next year," he said.

Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said Congress still has much to resolve with stakeholders on planning such a bill, said Risch spokesperson Brad Hoaglun.

"It's still not far enough to have a bill," Hoaglun said. "In his (Risch's) opinion, they've got a long way to go. It's not close enough for him to start looking at details, because there are not many details yet."

Dean Ferguson, spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, said it's important the proposal receives thoughtful consideration, and Minnick doesn't want to close the door on any possible solutions.

Marc Stewart, spokesperson for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, said IFG only approached the Coeur d'Alene Tribe after the Kootenai Tribe wrote a letter opposing the project.

"Idaho Forest Group made contact with the tribe and we've had a few preliminary discussions, but nothing has come before the council," Stewart said. "It's really premature to even call it negotiations. Saying negotiations would imply that things are on the table, and that's not the case."

Kurt Pavlat, acting field manager for the Coeur d'Alene BLM field office, said he is unsure how attractive the M3 proposal is.

The company's plans to use North Idaho parcels for timber harvest is similar to what the BLM is already doing, he said.

"We also manage these parcels for timber harvest and we sell the timber to local mills, of which Idaho Forest Group is one," Pavlat said. "I will say this, that IFG would harvest the timber more aggressively than the BLM would."

He questions the appeal of the southern Idaho acreage, he added, even with its wildlife and recreational possibilities.

"The land being offered right now, much of those lands are very steep and would be very difficult to develop," Pavlat said. "And the wildlife, they don't care whether the lands are federally or privately owned."

He thinks the plan is still in the preliminary stage, he added.

"Everything required by NEPA, the public meetings and doing public outreach, it typically takes a good two to three years," he said. "The merits of this still need to be considered by all parties and by the public."

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