Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Cape Horn land grant raises hackles

Petition urges congress to fund PILT, abandon land grants

Express Staff Writer

Among the federal land that would be released from public ownership for potential development in Rep. Mike Simpson?s economic development and wilderness bill are 960 acres of alpine meadows and woodland at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Arguably, Cape Horn includes some of the more breathtaking country in Idaho. In the spring, wildflowers pepper alpine meadows with impressionistic splashes of color while the Sawtooth Mountains loom to the south. In the winter, sweeping fields of snow drift through stands of conifers.

At 6,600 feet above sea level, it is cold, remote and difficult country, and it is home to dozens of wildlife species, including threatened gray wolves and chinook salmon, deer and elk.

If you?ve ever driven on Highway 21 between Stanley and Lowman, you?ve seen it. It is memorable country, and it most certainly would be easily marketable for high-end home sites.

But for those who oppose the Cape Horn land grant to Custer County, that is precisely the problem. As it is, the breathtaking area belongs to all Americans.

?Maybe it?s good that he chose such an inappropriate area,? said Lynne Stone, executive director of the Boulder White Clouds Council. ?I just have visions of people complaining about coyotes and elk, and people complaining about animals eating the little blue spruces they will bring in.?

In all, Simpson is proposing to grant between eight and 10 tracts of land to Custer County, Blaine County and Stanley. In sum, the land could total about 2,000 acres, but so far the 960 acres at Cape Horn, and to a lesser extent the 162 acres in and around Stanley, are what have people buzzing.

?We?re giving away sacred places to try to protect others,? Stone said. ?Valley Creek (where 68 acres would be given to Stanley) and Cape Horn are just as precious as any place in the White Clouds. What will we do with the Pioneer Wilderness when it?s proposed? Will we give away 1,000 acres of Bear Valley? Where does this idea end??

No sooner had Simpson submitted his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act in Congress last Friday, Oct. 8, than a group of Stanley-area residents began circulating a petition calling for Congress to abandon the measure.

?This is an unacceptable impact on elk and salmon,? said Dave Kimpton, an elk hunter, angler and retired ranger for the Stanley region of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. ?We need to have a solid tax base, but you don?t want to be giving up critical wildlife habitat. Congress already has PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) to fund county government and needs to use that tool.?

The petition?s sponsors oppose the ?public land giveaways? and said they intend to urge Congress to address rural Idaho?s economic woes by funding PILT more completely.

PILT was created in 1976 to pay counties for nontaxable federal lands within their borders to help offset the local government?s tax base.

But the funding formula favors counties with higher populations and has only been funded at about two-thirds the level allowed by law. In the past five years, Congress failed to pay Custer County more than $1 million. In 2004 the Congressional PILT payment to Custer County was $391,379, compared with the $990,619 that went to well-to-do Blaine County.

Custer County, located in central Idaho?s Salmon River country, has about 4,300 residents and covers an area of nearly 3 million acres. Most of the land, 96 percent, is owned by the federal government, and that is precisely why Simpson is proposing to turn some federal land over to private development. More private land would give the county an ongoing, more consistent revenue stream in the form of property taxes.

Lindsay Slater, Simpson?s chief of staff, defended Cape Horn as a viable location for development.

?Essentially we had two criteria when we were looking at lands that would go to Custer County: It couldn?t be roadless and it shouldn?t have any Endangered Species Act issues,? he said. ?This area has roads running right through it. It has power lines running through it, and it has been logged. It was identified by the Custer County Commissioners early on as a good site.?

Slater said the land, which is on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, would be given to Custer County with no strings attached.

But those who initiated the petition pointed out that the 960 acres at Cape Horn are near Marsh Creek, one of the only locations where wild chinook salmon, a threatened species under the ESA, return to Idaho.

?This is one of the few native runs of salmon in the United States not contaminated by hatcheries,? Kimpton said. ?Imagine several thousand people in these fragile meadows and marshes. The impact on fish and wildlife will be devastating.?

Marie Osborn was the nurse practitioner who staffed the Salmon River Emergency Clinic in Stanley for nearly 30 years. She is among the Stanley residents who initiated the petition calling for increased PILT funding.

?If the diagnosis is not enough money for Custer County government and services, then the remedy is to fix PILT,? Osborn said. ?Sacrificing our children?s heritage and some of Idaho?s most precious places won?t fix Custer County?s problems.?

For his part, Stanley Mayor Paul Frantellizzi said neither he nor his city council counterparts have taken a position on the wilderness bill.

?The position we have taken is not an opinion on whether we agree or disagree on the merits of the bill itself,? Frantellizzi said. ?What we have said is, if the bill is proposed and voted on and passes, we would like to see some benefit coming in to the city of Stanley.

?If this happens, it will affect us, and there are differing opinions on whether it will be a positive or negative effect. But there is no doubt that it will affect Stanley and the surrounding community.?

In his CIEDRA proposal, Congressman Mike Simpson proposes to give 960 acres of land at Cape Horn, west of Stanley, to Custer County. But that is only the most prominent of a number of land grants the bill would authorize.

· The Cape Horn land grant would include 960 acres of Challis National Forest land that would be granted to Custer County for probable development.

· In Stanley, 162 acres of SNRA land, broken into three tracts, would be given to the city and to Custer County. Deed restrictions and the SNRA?s building standards would apply to development there.

· Near Clayton, Bureau of Land Management land would be transferred to Custer County, but the amount and location has not yet been specified.

· Near Challis, Bureau of Land Management land would be transferred to Custer County (and likely annexed into Challis), but the amount and location has not yet been specified.

· Near Mackay, Bureau of Land Management land, including 8 acres near Mackay Reservoir and 160 acres west and across the Big Lost River from Mackay, would be given to Custer County and the city of Mackay respectively.

· Somewhere in Blaine County, federally-owned land would be given to the county government, but the location and amount have not been specified.

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