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USFS looks to add 200 private acres, public Falls Creek Falls access

Hagadone News Network | April 12, 2022 7:00 AM

U.S. Forest Service officials look to tap the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire roughly 200 now-private acres adjoining Savage Lake and Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Including access to Falls Creek Falls, the Seifert family currently owns the land.

In 2018, the family overall bought 360 acres in the area and have since been working with the USFS and a nonprofit to convey the 200 acres into public management.

The proposal includes maintaining permanent public recreation access to the popular falls, Savage Lake and other nearby public lands, said Mitch Doherty, conservation director for the nonprofit Vital Ground Foundation.

Doherty presented the proposed acquisition last week to the Lincoln County Commission, noting the effort remains in its planning stage with an option to close the land deal in 2024 or 2025, if ultimately approved.

He said the proposed 200-acre USFS acquisition comprises two parcels: A roughly 40-acre tract directly north of Savage Lake, and a nearby roughly 160-acre parcel lying west of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness that includes access to Falls Creek Falls.

“For over half a century, many local residents have enjoyed somewhat unrestricted access by the private landowners to Falls Creek Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Cabinet Mountains,” Doherty wrote in a letter to the commission.

“The U.S. Forest Service along with the Vital Ground Foundation are working to secure funding … to ensure the public’s ability to enjoy this area forever,” he wrote in the letter.

The commission appeared supportive of the plan, though voiced some concerns. They did not take formal action supporting or opposing the idea.

Commission concerns namely included removing the 200 acres from the county’s property tax base and otherwise removing the now-private acreage as a potential resource for affordable housing and land in the county.

Commissioner Jerry Bennett said only 8% of the county lies in private ownership.

“I say this at every conservation easement, proposal, or whatever: There are places that are better for growing basements than even trees,” Bennett said, noting that Vital Ground already has secured some 850 acres within the county in similar land acquisition projects.

“So here’s 1,000 acres [overall],” he said of the nonprofit’s efforts. “What does that do, not only for tax base, but what does it do for affordable land and housing moving forward?”

Bennett also cited concern over maintaining an existing water right for an area flume and at least one landowner’s concern with expanding the road easement there to better maintain public access to the acreage.

Established in 1964, the LWCF garnered permanent annual funding in 2020 from offshore U.S. oil and gas development royalties to the tune of $900 million, annually.

The fund remains chiefly meant to protect national parks and lands surrounding rivers and lakes from development, as well as national forests and wildlife refuges, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.