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Deep Dive: What’s the future of the Payette Lake region? Huge land swap proposal spurs action

Idaho's Biggest Toy Drive
Future in Focus: McCall

The future of a large portion of Valley County is at play, with a proposal to transfer more than 28,000 acres of land from the Idaho State Land Board’s endowment to private ownership.

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The land largely surrounds Payette Lake and McCall, and includes the tree-covered hills that frame the lake, lakefront properties, ground surrounding the Payette River, islands in the lake and more. In all, the parcels cover an area of nearly 44 square miles – more than 4.5 times larger than the city of McCall itself.

The proposal is a complicated one, with many moving parts, interests, legal questions, and differing opinions.

Map of Idaho endowment land in the McCall area – cross-hatched in blue.

A newly-formed business hopes to buy timberland in North Idaho, then swap it for the 28,000 acres surrounding McCall. That group – Trident Holdings, LLC is fronted by Alec Williams.

“We are trying to put together a solution which tries to use the power of markets and the private sector and private industry to solve problems,” Williams said during a taping of the BoiseDev podcast. “Our family has been in McCall for a long time and we want to be part of the solution.”

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Since the proposal started to come into view earlier this summer, it quickly attracted significant reaction. More than 500 comments poured into the inboxes of the McCall City Council – many of them negative. Testimony at the Idaho Land Board has also been largely in opposition. The Idaho Wildlife Federation is circulating a petition in opposition to the sale. The Idaho Conservation League came out in opposition. A protest took place last week on the streets of McCall.

Williams said – he gets it.

“I think I understand why people are fearful of private industry trying to come in and solve a problem that’s this messy, because they don’t have a lot of good examples to look towards,” he said. “When folks like the Wilks Brothers closed off a lot of lands to public use… they didn’t do a lot of favors to the idea that private industry could actually be used to solve for public challenges.”

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The plan so far

At its most basic level, Trident’s plan would remove the 28,000 acres from the Idaho Land endowment, and transfer it to the private group. Williams said they would sign contracts and easements upfront on most of the land in advance of the transfer.

“You are taking lands that right now are endowment lands and are transforming them into true public lands,” he said. “There’s a variety of instruments to do that, whether it is conservation easements or conservation projects or selling lands to conservation foundations, all of which would require keeping these lands open to the public forever.”

Williams said they don’t currently have a formal, detailed plan for how to use the land, and says that would come about through a process with stakeholders in the coming months and years.

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He said the plan would include “small pockets of development,” with most of the land remaining used for conservation. While he didn’t outline specifics, he said one idea would sell lots of an acre in size or so, that back up to a public area. He also mentioned working to help McCall’s affordable housing crunch, albeit in general terms.

He said the model helps pay for the land swap.

“The way it gets paid for is you reserve small modest clusters of areas to meet McCall’s growing needs,” he said. “Not this year – but phased in over decades. You use those small development clusters to then pay for the access and conservation work you do on the vast majority of all these lands.”

Skepticism builds

The McCall City Council received hundreds of pages of comments about the proposal

But other groups and individuals are already skeptical – and sometimes hostile to Trident’s proposal.

“People care and care passionately about this,” McCall resident Jeff Mousseau told the Idaho Land Board during a hearing earlier this week. “We’ve had signed petitions signed by several thousand people in opposition to this, and some demonstrations in opposition. This issue is galvanizing to the public. It’s particularly distressing that these lands could be vulnerable to (public sale).”

Craig Utter, who runs the Payette Land Trust, said the 120-year-old setup of the Idaho land endowment never contemplated a tourism-driven economy or use.

“The framers of the endowment may never have imagined the value of development, recreation or conservation ever challenging the value of timber or grazing,” he told the Land Board. “They may have thought the idea of biking through the mountains for enjoyment on a Saturday to be crazy – let alone an economic driver.”

The McCall land and Idaho Land Board

That land endowment is at the center of the current proposal – and overall concern about the future of the land.

The lands are currently owned by the State of Idaho – but aren’t typical public lands like you might think of in a state park or national forest. When Idaho formally became a state in 1890, it was granted and endowed with more than 5,600 square miles of land – or about 6.7% of the total land in the state. Those lands are mandated by both the Idaho constitution to produce a return – primarily for schools.

Since statehood, roughly a third of the land has been sold by the state.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, one of the five elected members of the Idaho Land Board, addressed some of the public feedback earlier this week at a public meeting.

“One of the things I often hear from people is ‘you can’t destroy McCall,'” he said. “We’re not setting out to destroy McCall. At the same time we have to find a way – it’s our constitutional duty to make as much money for school children and other beneficiaries.”

Wasden said that charter guides any decision the board will make.

“We’re trying to find a way to maximize the long term return on these lands,” he said,. “Sometimes letting them sit fallow is appropriate, but it may not be appropriate.  I know there are a lot of interests in McCall, and we need to be cognizant of those interests. Our job isn’t to fulfill those interests – our job is one thing only, and that is to act on behalf of those beneficiaries.”

In June, the Land Board voted to put a hold on any new leases or sales in the area, a move triggered by Trident’s forthcoming proposal.

Trident said its study shows the lands are currently a net drain on the Idaho land endowment, though others provide different estimates.

Some have suggested that the constitutional mandate be changed. Idaho’s constitution has been amended over the years, which can happen with a two-thirds vote on both the state house and senate, as well as a majority vote of the people. But even then, that’s not the end of any process.

“In terms of amending our constitution, it’s not so simple,” Wasden said. “Because this is a trust, this is an endowment that was created by the Federal government, we cannot amend the constitution without congress amending our admission bill. So this is not a simplistic issue. This is a very complicated issue. The Federal government has a say in whether this trust is dissipated or not, and I think that would be a very bad thing to dissipate this trust”

‘Hairy piece of ground’

A Payette Lake tour boat on the water last summer. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

“This is a big hairy piece of ground with all sorts of conflicting issues and places on it,” Gov Brad Little said. “(It’s) in a place that’s very special to a lot of people, including me. I have a conflict in the fact that I love McCall. But this – we want to do this right. One of the things the board has the ability to do is to change the use and classification – I think we really want to go into this eyes wide open – but on the other hand, we have people who want to invest capital and get this done.”

Endowment land around Payette Lake has been in the news repeatedly in recent years. The state started a process to auction off so-called cottage sites – properties that the state used to lease for use as cabins. It leased – and later pulled back – a site for a wedding venue on the shores of the lake. It decided to sell off the land on Cougar Island in the lake – another decision it pulled back.

Williams said those series of actions could lead to a fragmented approach, with piecemeal sales over time.

“In each instance, when the state can’t come up with a better, more holistic solution, they sort of wash their hands and sell these properties because that’s how they do right by schoolchildren statewide,” he said. “We tried to come up with a process to assemble all the key users and groups and come up with a better alternative.”

The money

Alec Williams Trident
Alec Williams. Courtesy Trident Holdings

But that alternative will take money – and possibly lots of it. Williams declined to tell BoiseDev how much he thinks Trident will need to raise. Last month, the company filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission and said it was working to sell up to $1 million in stock – $300,000 of which has already been raised.

“Our investors are all primarily Idaho residents that care about the future of this area,” Williams said. “They are either in McCall, live there or have family homes there or have been there for decades.”

In documents filed with the State of Idaho, only Williams’ name is listed. During a McCall City Council meeting on July 9th, council member Mike Maciaszek asked if Williams would disclose his investors. He told Maciaszek that he would have to get permission to do so.

When I asked him today if he had received permission, he again declined to say who was involved.

“There are a lot of personal attacks that have nothing to do with this plan at all, and I think our fear right now is that investors – even local to McCall – don’t want to be subject to those attacks when they go shopping at Albertsons,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to ask them to do that. Until we have more details out to the public to consume and provide feedback on and provide input for, (I) want to be the single source of communication for people.”

Williams said folks’ worst fear are unfounded.

“Everybody assumes there’s some huge secret puppet master in the background. There’s not.”

Study next

Trident was set to pitch the land swap to the Land Board at its meeting yesterday – but decided to hold off. Instead, the panel decided to move forward on a new comprehensive review of its management of the 28,000 acres in question.

“The ultimate goal of the study is to guide us as we remain loyal to our constitutional mandate to use endowment lands to generate the maximum long-term financial return to the beneficiaries,” Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller said. “That could mean continuing our current programs in McCall, ranging from our effective forest management, timber sales, and replanting efforts, or adding to our leasing opportunities.”

“A lot of this came about because of a recent proposal,” Idaho Department of Lands’ Ryan Montoya said of Trident’s effort. “Any suggestions that the department is considering mass exodus from McCall is untrue. We are looking at this holistically. We really do want to ensure our decisions are aligned with our fiduciary obligations, but are also with the longterm interactions with that area.”

Citizens who testified urged the Land Board to consider other ideas that could help the land produce additional revenue.

“I also believe they can be better managed to generate revenue for the endowment fund,” Mousseau said in testimony to the panel. “I ask the Land Board to come up with ideas to generate revenue (from the land) and increase revenues to the fund.”

Love for McCall

The common thread that comes up from anyone surrounding the issue is the love of McCall and its setting. Little talks about getting married in the area during the pouring rain. Utter talks about the lands’ value to the fabric of the community. Wasden describes proposing to his wife. Williams describes his family roots and time growing up in the area. Whatever comes next, Williams says he hopes can build trust. But he knows it won’t be easy.

“This is not a simple way to make money,” he said. “This is like the messiest possible way to try to have a successful business, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Don Day
Don is the founder and editor of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow.

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