"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Who owns the west, and why?

Afew weeks back we noted reports about how many vast stretches of Northwest timber lands have been moving from the hands of public corporations to privately-held businesses, a function in part of those lands providing solid returns over the long haul but modest returns quarter-by-quarter, which is the measure for the publics of life and death.

One implication of that is that the future of these lands may become a great deal more flexible, which could be a good thing or not. Such a question underlies the significant story today in the Idaho Statesman about Tim Blixseth and the huge sections of Idaho that he has owned since last year.

Those areas run about 180,000 acres, much of it tree-growing land bought from Boise Cascade, including the core of what was the firm’s tree farm running roughly from Weiser to Idaho City, and other pieces from other landowners, mainly further north. Blixseth may be little known in Idaho yet, but he’s of a sudden a major player. Reviews have been mixed; some of his neighbors are less than enamored, while others like the fact that he’s opened large portions of his lands to general public access, something he wasn’t obliged to do.

He’s done land swaps before – that and dealing in timber companies being the wellspring of his billionaire status – one of which led to construction of a lodge near Yellowstone National Park (described in the New York Times as “an opulent time-share program for the richest of the world’s rich”). He’s now in the middle of proposing another big swap, exchanging a string of pieces of his property – which on their face look to be more interesting as cultural or tourism spots than as timber-production locales. (He is well positioned politically: Blixseth has been a big-time contributor to Republicans in Montana and California, and to an extent nationally and in Oregon.) He hasn’t dropped the other shoe: What he wants in exchange. So we don’t yet know how to evaluate the deal, other than that the first part, at least, sounds interesting. It probably will be complex.

The main point here is that the Blixseth deal may be on a leading edge. As these lands move into increasingly private hands, they may in some respects drop off the radar. But they may re-emerge as they are more actively and carefully parsed, and the highest value of some of them may involve bringing pieces of them into public hands. In exchange, of course, for something else.

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