Elk foundation withdraws support of land swap deal

Lewiston, Idaho (AP) – The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is
withdrawing its support of a proposed land swap deal in northern
Idaho between the U.S. Forest Service and a timber company.

The Lewiston Tribune reports in a story published Saturday that
the Missoula, Mont.-based foundation sent a letter to Clearwater
National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell noting the group’s
concerns. Foundation President David Allen said a backlash from
members and the proposal’s expansion into elk habitat in Idaho
County prompted the group’s change of heart.

“The identified federal exchange lands in Idaho County contain
very high-value wildlife habitat, including significant amounts of
crucial winter range for elk, which could potentially be
compromised,” Allen wrote. “Concern about loss of access, land use
changes and habitat alterations in traditional hunting areas have
also emerged as serious points of contention.”

Brazell said he’s disappointed in the group’s decision. He said
the foundation still supports the agency acquiring the timber land,
though the foundation would prefer a purchase agreement rather than
the land swap, referred to as the Lochsa Land Exchange.

“We understand they were getting a lot of pressure from their
members, we totally understand why they are reluctant to stay
involved,” Brazell said. “They are still very supportive of us
acquiring the upper Lochsa land and if we end up getting it after
our process is done they are still willing to help us get funds to
restore it.”

The foundation and Forest Service in 2008 signed a memorandum of
understanding about the proposed trade that involved about 18,000
acres of federal land spread over three national forest in Idaho
for 40,000 acres of Western Pacific Timber land in the upper Lochsa
River basin.

Blake Henning, vice president of lands and conservation for the
foundation, said the Forest Service’s decision earlier this year to
look at an alternative that involved just Idaho County caused
problems for the group’s members.

“Folks just didn’t want us to be involved anymore and were
really concerned about the loss of access and recreation,” he
said.

The land swap deal has faced initial opposition by various
entities critical of the Forest Service’s plan to trade tracts of
popular federal land for remote acreage owned by the timber
company. In response, a draft environmental impact statement cut
the maximum number of federal acres that could be traded from
28,000 to about 18,000.

“Our hope would be that the U.S. Forest Service would follow
(Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s) example and withdraw from a land
exchange that is clearly not in the public’s best interest,” said
Kathy Judson, spokeswoman for the Friends of the Palouse Ranger
District.

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