State officials eye McCall-area land swap amid opposition

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BOISE, Idaho — A investment firm's proposal to swap private timberland in northern Idaho for up to 44 square miles (114 square kilometres ) of public state land in and around the tourist destination of McCall faced opposition Tuesday from local governments, environmental groups and private citizens.

Trident Holdings LLC pitched the plan to Republican Gov. Brad Little and four other statewide-elected members of the Idaho Land Board, all of whom remained non-committal in what was an information-item only on the agenda with no action allowed to be taken by the board.

The Land Board manages nearly 4,000 square miles (10,300 square kilometres ) Idaho received at statehood to benefit mainly public schools. The board is constitutionally mandated to manage that land, as well as market investments, to get the greatest long-term return. The Land Board last fiscal year generated about $85 million for distribution.

Most of that revenue is generated through timber sales. But state-owned land in and near McCall, which is also a popular area for vacation homes, has skyrocketed in value. That means timber revenue and other uses, such as developing the land, make it conceivable that the best financial return on that land might be to simply dispose of it in exchange for some other type of asset.

Trident's founder and manager, Alec Williams, pitched the plan as a way for the state to fulfil its mission of generating money for endowment land beneficiaries while also signing off on a deal that will preserve public access and recreational opportunities in the McCall area. He said the plan will preserve open space and create the state's largest park. But there would also be development.

“There is a profit motive here,” Williams told the board, which met remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposal given to the board says “a limited amount of development will occur in targeted areas.” This is described as both residential areas and hospitality areas, meaning such things as homes, hotels or resorts. But the plan doesn't contain precise details.

McCall is a destination for many people, including the governor, who has family history in the area.

“I readily admit I’m biased toward McCall because of my long affiliation,” he said. But he also said the board has to be aware that any decision could set a precedent for other areas of the state that have their supporters.

“We need to think about what the ramifications are for the portfolio,” Little said.

The state manages about 285 square miles (740 square kilometres ) in the area, with 115 square miles (300 square kilometres ) primarily as timberlands. About 8 square miles (20 square kilometres ) are within McCall's designated area of impact, including highly sought-after shoreline along Payette Lake. That land is classified as timberland assets, but it is surrounded by land classified with higher values.

The Idaho Department of Lands, which the Land Board directs, also presented a plan for the area. It's separate from Trident's plan but includes much of the same land.

A primary problem for the state is that some lands in the area are not producing as much money as they could, and revenue isn't commensurate with the actual value of the land. That potentially means the Land Board isn't meeting its constitutional requirement to maximize the long-term financial return on that land.

So the department is looking at how best to change that situation, meaning transitioning those lands to some other use. The department proposed a three-phased approach to the board involving short-term plans up to five years, medium-term plans of five to 10 years, and long-term plans of more than 10 years. The different phases would apply to parcels of land as they transitioned to different uses to maintain an appropriate return on the investment.

The board also took public comments.

Dave Bingaman, a Valley County commissioner, speaking on behalf of the county and the city of McCall, asked the board to extend a moratorium on leases and land exchanges in the area to allow for additional study.

“We only have once chance to do this right,” he said.

Nick Harris of Burgdorf Hot Springs, a tourist draw currently closed because of the pandemic, said Trident was low-balling the state, and would get about $1.1 billion of land in and around the McCall area for about $45 million of timberland under the current proposal.

“It would take an incredible amount of timberland to make this deal even remotely fair,” he said.

Keith Ridler, The Associated Press