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BLM is sponsoring a public meeting tonight on a proposed trail for Cougar Bay. The trail will be located in a portion of the public preserve known as the John C. Pointner Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary. The Nature Conservancy and BLM are co-managing Cougar Bay lands for hiking, recreation and wildlife habitat. There are a number of improvements in the works, but for this meeting, the BLM and The Nature Conservancy propose to construct a 0.7-mile trail that would follow the banks of Cougar Bay. We’re glad to see this effort move forward – better access to a great local jewel seems like a great idea.

 

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In a letter dated March 4th, the district managers for both the Coeur d’Alene and Boise districts of the BLM rejected the proposed land exchange that would have transferred some 9000 acres of North Idaho BLM property to M3, in exchange for some 11,000 acres of M3 lands in the Boise foothills.  M3, an Arizona-based development company with an interest in a large development proposal outside of Eagle, had intended to immediately flip the North Idaho BLM properties to the Idaho Forest Group for timber harvesting. In the letter, BLM says “We have concluded this exchange proposal is not in the public’s best interest.”

Last summer, KEA submitted a letter to Congressional representatives and BLM sharply critical of the proposed exchange.

According to the BLM’s analysis, the acquisition of the sagebrush steppe southern parcels was not equivalent to the loss of high natural resource and timber values of the forested North Idaho lands. BLM noted specifically that the value of the North Idaho properties would be expected to increase substantially in value, while the value of the southern parcels would “remain at or near current value” due to their limited development potential.

The BLM also noted that many of the North Idaho parcels proposed for exchange had high resource values for “wildlife, fisheries, recreation, open space, timber, and threatened and endangered species habitat and connectivity” that were not equaled by the southern properties.

Notably, the BLM letter seemed to foreclose any further action on this exchange for the immediate future. The letter says BLM will not consider “further modifications or refinements” from M3 until the BLM’s Boise office completes its planning process for the Four Rivers area, where the southern part of the exchange would occur. The Four Rivers plan is expected to be completed in 2013.

 

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The battle over an obscure policy directive by Interior Secretary Salazar over BLM lands blew up this week, with Governor Otter testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. Raul Labrador introducing his very first piece of legislation.

The “wild lands” policy, announced in December, would simply have BLM consider wilderness values if and when it writes management plans for the properties under its control. Until a Bush administration settlement with the State of Utah in 2003, it has been the standard practice of the agency dating back to a Congressional mandate in 1976. Salazar’s directive doesn’t create new areas for wilderness-level protection. Rather, it simply allows some sort of continued protection to occur, if warranted, and after an extensive public review. Indeed, both Democratic and Republican administrations have maintained provisional protections for these places until Congress can consider permanent designations. Nationwide, less than 1% of BLM’s land is designated as wilderness. Some 42%, however, is leased to oil and gas interests.

According to a 2007 management plan and environmental impact statement for the Coeur d’Alene region, BLM identified only three parcels that might qualify for wilderness-level considerations. One is a 720 acre BLM parcel adjacent to the Forest Service’s 98,000 acre roadless area on the Selkirk Crest. Another is a 12,000 acre BLM parcel adjacent to 22,000 acres of Forest Service roadless area on Grandmother Mountain in Shoshone County. Another is 9000 acres around Crystal Lake at the headwaters of Latour Creek south of Cataldo, also in Shoshone County.

But continuing to protect this type of spectacular roadless land is some sort of outrageous, apparently.

Labrador’s bill, called the “Idaho Land Sovereignty Act” would require Congressional approval for BLM’s continued protection of these lands for their wilderness values. Labrador’s over the top press release says:

This denies jobs and security to a nation in need of both and is a sad example of the out of touch decisions being forced upon us by an aloof administration. In addition, the administration is totally out of line with the interests of Western states by denying us the right to manage our own lands and wildlife populations.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s fiercely anti-wilderness Governor Otter testified to Congress that the floating green on Lake Coeur d’Alene was more valuable than Idaho’s 2-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness managed in part by the BLM.

It’s a nice green, on a really nice lake, but literally, there’s no comparison.

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After some detailed study and discussion, KEA finally weighed in on the proposed land exchange between Arizona developer M3 Eagle, Idaho Forest Group (IFG), and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), expressing serious concerns.

The complicated exchange would provide M3 with key parcels related to a development proposal just north of Eagle, it would supply BLM with some 12000 acres of M3’s surplus sagebrush steppe lands in the Boise foothills, and it would supply Idaho Forest Group with some 8000 acres of BLM forest lands in North Idaho. M3 and IFG would like the Idaho congressional delegation to jump start the process with legislation to authorize the exchange pending environmental studies. (News coverage available here and here and here.)

KEA has had the opportunity to review presentations on the proposal by BLM’s North Idaho office and by Idaho Forest Group, in which the pros and cons of the proposal were thoroughly explored. In a letter to Congressional representatives sent yesterday, KEA expressed concern with the proposal:

In sum, on the substance, we believe the present proposal drains critical public resources from BLM’s inventory in North Idaho while not providing comparable economic or environmental value in the Boise foothills. On the procedure, we believe that any such proposal should be subjected to a full environmental analysis and a comprehensive parcel-by-parcel appraisal prior to any approvals – legislated or otherwise.

The letter notes that KEA doesn’t necessarily or automatically oppose land exchange proposals with the federal government. Indeed, consolidating parcels for conservation benefit or acquiring recreational access are often accomplished through land exchanges. But this proposal would essentially exhaust BLM’s North Idaho inventory, making local exchanges much more difficult for the foreseeable future.

Most importantly, though, these complex exchanges require a great deal of study first. Each and every parcel needs a thorough environmental assessment and a thorough market appraisal, and these evaluations need to be accomplished — and released for public input — before approvals are given. In this respect, we expressed concern to our congressional delegation that legislation on this proposal would be premature, and probably prejudicially so.

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