North vs. South?

Concerns raised about proposed Idaho land swap

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There are questions about the swap.

Outside opposition and agency concerns have been raised about an Arizona development company's proposal to exchange thousands of its private acres in southern Idaho for public land in North Idaho.

"We try to remain as objective as possible, but I'm sure as you can tell, we have some concerns," said Kurt Pavlat, acting field manager at the Bureau of Land Management Coeur d'Alene Field Office, who spoke at a Kootenai Environmental Alliance meeting at the Iron Horse Bar and Grill on Thursday.

Pavlat laid out the proposal by M3 Companies, based in Phoenix, for a land swap with the BLM.

Still in preliminary stages, the West Boise Foothills Proposed Land Exchange would involve M3 giving up 11,838 acres in Boise County to federal ownership.

In return, the company would obtain 9,706 BLM acres scattered throughout North Idaho, including areas like Cottonwood and between the north and south forks of the Coeur d'Alene River.

"The land isn't exchanged acre for acre, but value for value," Pavlat said.

The "linchpin" that M3 is most focused on is 815 acres north of Eagle, Pavlat said, which lies adjacent to land M3 already owns. The company hopes to use the obtained acreage to build a development for industrial, residential and commercial use.

"It would be intended as a place where you live, you eat and you work," he said.

Most of the public land that M3 would acquire has already been set aside by the Coeur d'Alene BLM office for the purpose of land exchanges, Pavlat said, but was intended under the office's land use plan to be exchanged for other parcels also in North Idaho.

"Land use plan conformance is important to us," he said. "It guides our management over the next 10 to 20 years."

There are other issues, he added.

For instance, the 815 acres that M3 is most interested in has been marked by BLM for retention, on account of sensitive plant species.

On top of that, Pavlat said he is worried about how much grass covers the land in southern Idaho near Horseshoe Bend that the BLM would obtain.

"When there are fires, a lot of the grass doesn't grow back," he said, adding that instead various weeds spring up instead. "Does the U.S. want to acquire land infested with invasive or noxious weeds?"

It would take two to three years to go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) public hearing process, after which M3 has proposed the exchange be completed through federal legislation.

"Most of the time, legislators want to see this go through NEPA," Pavlat said.

M3 has partnered with Coeur d'Alene company Idaho Forest Group on the project, he added, and M3 would immediately sell the land to IFG after acquiring it.

A spokesperson for IFG who was contacted after the presentation said the project is too preliminary to comment on at this time.

A spokesperson for M3 Companies could not be reached.

The development company has made a land exchange proposal twice before, which the Boise BLM District turned down due to non-conformance with its land use plan.

Pavlat pointed out that the Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai tribes have formerly opposed the project.

Still, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Lands Council in Spokane are in favor, he said.

"As you can see, there is support and opposition on both sides," he said.

Terry Harris, KEA executive director, said his group will be discussing this further, but he thought the issue is important for Kootenai County residents to watch.

"I think it affects the ability of the BLM to operate with the best interests of North Idaho in mind," he said.

Coeur d'Alene resident Wes Hanson said he is wary of the proposal.

"What's in it for us (in North Idaho)?" he said. "Wouldn't it be a better idea be consolidating North Idaho land and keeping it in North Idaho?"

Sandy Emerson, member of the Four County National Resource Committee, said his organization has also formally opposed the project.

"We would like the land to be traded for North Idaho property," Emerson said. "We don't want to trade it for sagebrush land in Boise."

He did, however, defend past BLM land exchanges, which Emerson said have led to obtaining land around Lake Coeur d'Alene.

"They've worked really hard to acquire land with public access, and the way they do is by trading this way," he said. "Otherwise we wouldn't have the public access we do on the lake."

Former state Sen. Mary Lou Reed also added her concerns.

"It's not only about what's in it for us, but what's in it for the public interest?" Reed said. "Other acquisitions gave us public access to lakes, but it's hard for us to know there's anything for the public interest in this exchange."

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