This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org).
“That sign is wrong,” David Simmonds said as we snowshoed past the warning: “Danger Thin Ice.”
Out on the frozen lake, a few hundred feet from shore, a layer of slush had formed between the 3 inches of ice below and the inch or so of fresh snow on top. Whenever Simmonds shifted his snowshoes or dug the basket of his pole into the snow, a puddle — liquid, cold, unnerving — appeared. It was a Friday morning in early January, and we were on Payette Lake in the center of McCall, a resort town in west-central Idaho.
The lake, shaped like an upside-down “v,” is about 10 miles from tip to top to tip. Earlier that week, Simmonds, president of the nonprofit Big Payette Lake Water Quality Council, had skated 7 miles down the ice with his wife and a friend.
The morning fog lifted as we spoke, revealing the snow-dusted trees and hills that neatly cup the lake’s northeast edge. About 80 feet below us was the end of a pipe, one of the town’s two drinking water intakes. McCall relies entirely on Payette Lake for water; a city report from 2018 estimated that its water system serves the equivalent of over 4,500 households — more than McCall’s resident population of about 3,500 people, due to second homes, hotels and vacation rentals.
Demand is likely to nearly double in the next 20 years. Logging, shoreline erosion, wildfires, climate change and development are just some of the factors that can harm water quality. Increasing recreational use can also cause problems.
And new housing brings dangers of its own: Disturbing the soil during construction can wash harmful amounts of nutrients into the water, while population rise will put more pressure on the lake.
All this can cause warmer temperatures, nutrient pollution and noxious algae blooms. Over the past few years, there have been algae blooms in late summer; last year was particularly bad, with bright green water that smelled fishy and felt disconcertingly grainy. If the blooms get worse, they could set off a self-perpetuating cycle. “We’re kind of poking the hornet’s nest with a stick here,” Simmonds said. “And if we poke it enough times, we’re going to get ourselves in trouble.”
Trouble seems inevitable: Since COVID-19 hit the United States in early 2020, people have been leaving cities and moving into less populated areas. In McCall, that’s sparked a demand for new building. In 2020, 346 lots were sold in the area, more than twice as many as the year before, according to The Star-News in McCall. And now, a new proposal for a land swap involving tens of thousands of acres of state-owned property around Payette Lake has revealed the potential for yet more development — unless the community can find an alternative.
Idaho Land Board members meet with Trident
On June 16, 2020, the five state leaders on the Idaho Land Board held their monthly public meeting to discuss “endowment land,” a special category of state land that must be managed to maximize long-term profits to fund schools and other public institutions. Despite the pandemic, they gathered at the state Capitol in Boise in a formal auditorium, surrounded by dark wood paneling and heavy red drapes. A handful of people sat in the audience, and more watched online.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a board member, spoke of a recent meeting with two groups interested in the land around Payette Lake, including a new company called Trident Holdings LLC. A memo, released five days earlier, mentioned a proposal for a 28,000-acre land exchange, later revealed to have been put forth by Trident.
It was listed under a specific agenda item: a vote on whether to pause major management decisions in that area until the board adopted a new, detailed strategy for the land’s future. Wasden had spoken with Trident representatives, including its founder, Alec Williams, about the swap.
“I felt like it was important that I disclose that prior to any discussion about the matters today,” Wasden said, his voice muffled by a blue cloth face mask.
Gov. Brad Little, R, another board member, took off his glasses and twisted them in his hands.
“Board members, I also had a meeting with Trident,” he said. “This is a big hairy piece of ground, with all kinds of conflicting issues. … I have a conflict in that I love McCall. So we want to do this right.”
One at a time, the other three members also acknowledged meeting with Trident. “Governor, I did not; but my staff has, just for the record,” State Controller Brandon Woolf said, to laughter from his colleagues. “That’s it.”
The board voted to pause new leases, sales or exchanges of the lands around McCall until they approved the new management strategy.
Two days later, the McCall Star-News ran a front-page story on the proposed land exchange. Trident wanted to trade North Idaho timberlands for land around Payette Lake, the article explained. Most of the endowment land around the lake is forested and open to the public. It is not, however, protected the way federal public land is: The Land Board is not required to conduct environmental reviews of management decisions. Furthermore, its mandate is to make money, rather than prioritize conservation or recreation.
Most of the land’s revenue comes from timber sales. But in the McCall region, some parcels, particularly the desirable land near the lake, were worth much more than they’d been generating. By one state estimate, 5,500 acres of that land should have been producing $1.9 million more annually than it actually was.
Trident saw this gap as an opportunity: The exchange, it said, would fulfill the Land Board’s fiduciary responsibility while allowing Trident to plan responsible development — which would help finance a park over most of the 28,000 acres, keeping it publicly accessible.
Many McCall residents were skeptical, including Deb Fereday, a retired public high school environmental science teacher who has lived in McCall her whole life. She and her husband own the town’s main hardware store, as well as a marina on the lake. Fereday has the calm confidence of a teacher and is invariably the person on a video call who lets you know if you’re muted. A couple of weeks after the McCall Star-News’ story, Fereday sat down at her kitchen table, opened the paper and saw a full-page ad by Trident promoting the land swap.
The ad was peppered with historic photographs of Alec Williams’ relatives, who built a small cabin on the eastern edge of Payette Lake in the 1930s. It warned that the endowment lands were at risk of being chopped up owing to a statute in the Idaho Constitution, which stipulates that the state can’t sell an endowment land parcel larger than 320 acres to a single buyer. If the Land Board auctioned off the 28,000 acres piecemeal — something that rising land values could force it to do, it seemed — “private property lines would divvy up the lands we all enjoy, with locked gates, guards, and no trespassing signs everywhere.”
But for Fereday, who serves as the secretary of the Big Payette Lake Water Quality Council, the thought of giving one company control over that much land made her feel sick to her stomach. She called her friend, Judy Anderson, another retired teacher, and said, “What if we got a whole bunch of people to sign a full-page ad that said, ‘We do not agree with this’?” The two got to work with others collecting signatures, eventually gathering over 650 for an ad that ran two weeks later. Columns of names took up the entire bottom half of the page.
“So many people had that same kind of a gut reaction of, ‘Wait a minute, these are lands that we ski on, hike on, we huckleberry pick on, we pick mushrooms, we take our kids to go look at the streams and maybe go up Lick Creek in the springtime when we’re so sick of the snow,’ ” Fereday told me. “All these lands, they’re just part of McCall.”
Payette Lake shore: state endowment, Ponderosa Park, private land
The land where McCall now sits is the ancestral territory of the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) people, and it remains important to them today: When the Nez Perce ceded the region to the U.S. government in an 1855 treaty, they explicitly retained the right to fish in their accustomed places, including in and around Payette Lake, and to hunt, pasture livestock, and gather roots and berries. The U.S. later violated the treaty, but the Nez Perce never ceded those rights. “That’s why we still can hunt and fish there, and that’s why our people still do,” Nakia Williamson, a tribal member and the tribe’s cultural resources director, told me, though development and the transformation of the landscape have made that more difficult.
Still, Nez Perce people fish for salmon in nearby streams in the summertime and gather roots and medicines around Payette Lake. But it’s bigger than that, Williamson said: “These are more than just rights, they’re more than just activities,” he told me. “That back-and-forth interaction and relationship (with the land) is what is foundational to our identity as Nez Perce people.”
There are currently more than 3,500 citizens of the Nez Perce Tribe, many of whom live north of Payette Lake. McCall — which is 99% white — was officially founded in 1911. Lumber production was the town’s main industry until a few decades ago, but as early as the 1880s, tourists started going there to camp and enjoy the lake. In recent years, tourism and second homes have proliferated; private houses squeeze next to one another along much of the lake’s shoreline, their docks jutting into the water like the tines of a wide-toothed comb.
Elsewhere, a big chunk of lakeshore is open to the public at Ponderosa State Park, which is 1,500 acres separated into two units. At the North Beach Unit at the top of the lake, visitors can canoe the inlet’s meanders, while the park’s main section, a peninsula that splits the lake nearly in two, is popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers. On a cold, sun-drenched Saturday in January, the parking lot was full by noon.
The rest of the shoreline is endowment land, extending beyond the lake into the forested hills above, where it meets a vast swath of national forest, creating a contiguous landscape where mountain lions, moose and other wildlife roam.
Endowment land, also called state trust land, is not unique to Idaho, though it is concentrated in the Western U.S. Beginning in 1803, as territories were admitted to the Union, the federal government granted them trust lands — areas in the “public domain” — in order to fund public schools, correctional facilities, hospitals and other institutions. In many cases, that land was illegally taken from Indigenous nations, often under the threat of genocide.
Typically, states turned to timber sales or grazing or mining leases to raise money from the land, but many also sold or exchanged parcels. In Idaho, 2.5 million acres — 67% of the grant it received upon statehood in 1890 — remains. The state also collects revenue from an endowment fund seeded with the land’s proceeds; as of last year, that fund held $2.4 billion. Idaho’s public school system, the largest beneficiary, received $52.5 million in 2020, about 2.5% of what the state spends annually on schools.
The Idaho Land Board has approved large land exchanges before. Most recently, in January, nearly 24,000 acres of state endowment land were exchanged for Bureau of Land Management land. But McCall’s situation is different: It involves a private company, and it includes areas that residents and visitors have long, however incorrectly, considered permanent public recreation lands.
The Land Board makes decisions regarding state trust lands, but their day-to-day management falls to a state agency, the Idaho Department of Lands. The department is spearheading the creation of the new plan that would help guide future management decisions for McCall’s endowment lands — such as whether to approve Trident’s land swap. The plan could become a template for how trust lands are managed throughout Idaho. “Anything that the board and the department does on this parcel, we need to think about what the ramifications are in that policy on the entire portfolio,” Gov. Little said at a Land Board meeting.
The department intends to finish the document this spring. The plan is a kind of bellwether: Will the steps the department took in developing it help foster local input when beloved landscapes are at stake, or will its framing usher in a new era of massive private development in Idaho? The answer could resonate across the entire West. Given the shared legal and philosophical underpinnings of the nation’s 46 million acres of endowment lands, what happens in one state could be a guide for others.
Opponents form Payette Endowment Lands Alliance
Around the same time that Fereday and other McCall residents put together their anti-Trident newspaper ad, a nurse at the local hospital created an anti-land-exchange Facebook group. In just 10 days, it garnered 1,000 members. Hundreds of people sent public comments opposing the swap to McCall’s City Council. And Jeff Mousseau, a retired engineer, organized a rally where he handed out 50 anti-exchange yard signs, which quickly popped up across town. Soon, about a dozen people were meeting every Friday morning, via Zoom, to talk about the swap. They called themselves the Payette Endowment Lands Alliance, or PELA.
In early January, I met up with seven members of PELA to see some of the areas in question. It had recently snowed, and more than one house I drove by had a pair of skis or a snowboard speared into a snowbank out front. We gathered at a pullout on the east side of the lake, then walked up the road toward an area known as “Parcel G” — 21 acres, including about half a mile of lakeshore, that a state estimate put at $9.7 million.
The members were in high spirits; it was the first time some of them had met in person. They broke off into smaller groups, chatting and laughing, happy to be outside. We halted when Fereday, ever the teacher, paused to point out Parcel G: “Stop right here, and let me explain,” she said. It was a pretty, wooded slope, the boughs of the trees bent under inches of snow. Eventually, we trekked down through the grove to reach the lake. The spot was quiet and undeveloped, and many residents were determined to keep it that way: The Land Board had leased it to a private company as a rustic wedding venue in 2019, but rescinded the lease following public outcry. People not only objected to the noise; they also saw the initial rent as egregiously low: $4,000 per year.
This area and the other endowment lands around Payette Lake had long been on the radar of a local conservation nonprofit, the Payette Land Trust. (Fereday’s husband, Rick, is on the trust’s board.) The trust’s executive director, Craig Utter, told me that the trust had started looking into conservation easements on the land over three years ago. Such easements allow someone who acquires rights to a parcel, such as building rights, to retire them to conserve the land. Initially, the idea failed to gain traction, but Trident’s proposal had spurred new interest, and urgency.
In early 2021, the Idaho Department of Lands convened a short-term focus group of stakeholders — people who own homes in McCall, or have business or other interests in the area — to provide feedback on the agency’s proposed management plan. Utter and one of PELA’s members belonged to the group, as did Simmonds, the Nordic skater with whom I’d snowshoed out onto the frozen lake. None of the participants explicitly represented low-income communities. The group’s purpose, according to the department, was to help find the intersection between the interests and needs of McCall and the Land Board’s constitutional mandate. Its creation, Utter told me, was a major turning point: “IDL’s never reached out to the public like this,” he said.
On the edge of the lake, Fereday asked me to snap a group photograph to record PELA’s first in-person outing. People stood in a loose line in the snow, smiling. To our left rose the wide, brown facade of the Tamarack Bay Condos; to our right, a couple of church camp cabins dotted the shore at Paradise Point. Fereday looked out over the ice toward Shellworth Island — part of the endowment lands — and the wooded ridge of Ponderosa State Park behind it, then gestured toward the island. “Wouldn’t that be super,” she said, “if that were park land?”
Trident’s newspaper ad backfires
In early February, Trident formally applied for a land exchange. The company had reduced the area it wanted from 28,000 to nearly 20,000 acres, but the broad strokes of the plan hadn’t changed.
That same week, in temperatures that hovered around freezing, I drove north along the western side of Payette Lake with Williams. He’s in his mid-30s but has the air of a Boy Scout — he did, in fact, attend Boy Scout camp as a child — sincerely concerned about the people around him and an attentive listener, yet one who radiates a faint sense of righteousness. Before he founded Trident, he worked for a real estate investment firm.
It took me months of reporting to find a single resident of McCall who was willing to consider the swap, much less openly support it. I asked Williams about the community’s opposition, and he mentioned the Land Board meeting where the news first broke that Trident had approached board members privately. “I’ll eat humble pie,” he said. “We definitely started out on the wrong foot.” He thought the board’s failure to mention that Trident intended to create a park and incorporate community input into its development plans had hurt public perception of the proposal.
The newspaper ad Trident ran in July was supposed to provide more information, but it backfired. People objected to the ad’s tenor, the way Williams seemed to be trading on his family’s connection to McCall, implying that he knew what was best for the town. “Alec Williams insults our maturity and intelligence by taking a condescending, paternal tone,” one McCall resident wrote in a letter to the Star-News. Others castigated the proposal as a joke, a back-door theft, a deal full of rotten fish. Both sides raised the specter of the Wilks brothers, a pair of Texas billionaires who bought up thousands of acres in Idaho beginning in 2016 — including in Valley County, where McCall is located — then promptly closed off public access. Locals felt a sense of déjà vu, while Trident maintained it saw the Wilks brothers as a model of exactly what not to do.
“The thing that’s always convinced me to just try to keep at it is, I really believe this is the right thing to do,” Williams told me, his voice muted by his mask. He was frustrated by critics who wanted to protect public lands but dismissed what he saw as an elegant way to do just that. “They’re resistant for reasons that I think don’t necessarily relate to this specific idea, but kind of the frustrations they feel with how McCall has already changed, and will surely keep changing,” he told me.
We stopped at a pullout on the edge of the lake and put on our snowshoes. We headed toward the ice, but, stymied by the steep downhill slope, decided to stay on top of a dense snowbank taller than the truck.
Williams, in a tan canvas jacket and trim black ski pants, pointed across the frozen lake to North Beach and a strip of unpaved road next to it. He explained that Trident hoped to move the road up the slope and away from the water, thereby improving public access to the shoreline. His words sounded steady and practiced, as if he’d frequently made the pitch before.
When asked about new houses, he didn’t have much to add. “Will there be development on that bluff?” he said, indicating where the rerouted road might go. “I don’t know. The point is, I will not be — and don’t want to be — the one person who dictates where it goes.” This lack of specificity regarding obvious questions — How many houses would be built, and where? How big would they be? What will they sell for? — struck residents as a lack of transparency. Williams, however, insisted he wanted the community to weigh in.
The night before, I’d spoken with a husband and wife who live near Payette Lake. We sat in their garage on metal patio furniture padded with comfortable, rust-orange cushions, a wide table separating us and our faces masked. They’d met with Williams once that summer, something so taboo in McCall that they asked to remain anonymous; one of them holds a public position with the city and worried that meeting with Williams would be viewed as tacit approval of his plan.
They told me that they hadn’t yet decided whether they supported the exchange. They wanted to hear Williams out, however. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, hell no,’ ” the husband told me. “Last thing I wanted was some out-of-town developer building and taking rights to all of this land.”
Then, he said, he spoke with Williams and listened to his public statements, and he thought about how development was coming whether current residents liked it or not. In the couple’s view, the choice was not between the status quo and growth; the question was what you wanted the growth to look like. And Trident’s proposal would keep at least some of the land open to the public. “It’s a foregone conclusion that development is going to happen,” the man said. “I don’t think you can say no — ”
“It’s too late,” the woman interjected, her sentence punctuated with a deep laugh.
“If you believe everything Alec says,” the man told me, “there’s a lot of good in it.” Still, they feared that, given the amount of money involved, profits might dictate changes in plans. Williams refused to tell me how much he thinks it will all cost, but recent ballpark estimates from the Idaho Department of Lands put the value of just the 5,500 acres of endowment lands closest to the lake at $53-$85 million. Trident’s own economic analysis ranges from $1,300 to $4,300 per acre, meaning up to $86 million for 20,000 acres.
Homeowners association hires lobbyist to fight swap
The same economic forces that have been driving up the value of the endowment lands have also squeezed housing in McCall. According to a 2018 city report, only 1% of the town’s housing units were affordable enough for the bottom 12% of income earners to buy.
And housing has become even more expensive: Between 2019 and 2020, the median sale price for homes there rose from $406,000 to $455,000, according to the Star-News. Only 27% of homes are occupied by their owners; the rest are vacation and rental properties. Even so, renting isn’t much easier than buying, because most rentals are short-term or seasonal.
Shante Arroyo is the assistant manager at the Rustic Inn, a motel at the south edge of town. She grew up in McCall and still lives there — at the motel, in a basement apartment. “There’s not a lot of houses here,” she said. “We have employee housing here because we can’t find a place to live.”
Arroyo told me that she hadn’t even heard about the proposed land exchange; neither side has done extensive outreach to lower-income communities. If the exchange leads to more housing, however, she thinks that would be a good thing. And it might: Trident’s plans include affordable housing on part of an 80-acre parcel on Deinhard Lane, a partially wooded open lot estimated to be worth $1.7 million.
A preliminary proposal included another area targeted for housing, 85 acres just south of Ponderosa State Park, next to and within an exclusive neighborhood known as Pilgrim Cove. It’s worth an estimated $27.8 million — substantially more than the Deinhard Lane parcel — and likely would’ve been developed with more expensive homes.
But most of that area was dropped from Trident’s official application. “We feel that the existing Deinhard parcel will afford all the necessary space to do a really meaningful housing opportunity for locals,” Williams told me.
Pilgrim Cove is a neighborhood of several dozen homes, some of them on lakefront property, reached by a private road emblazoned on with a sign that says “under year around surveillance.” It’s a mix of homey cabins and modern chalets, all surrounded by towering evergreens. Home values there can top $2 million.
In January, Bob Looper, the president of the Pilgrim Cove Homeowners Association, met me at the intersection where his neighborhood, Ponderosa State Park and the endowment land all meet. We walked down Pilgrim Cove’s well-plowed road with Riggs, Looper’s golden retriever, bounding along beside us. Looper, who is also a member of the Idaho Department of Lands’ focus group, sported a big smile and a striped hat from Brundage Mountain Ski Resort, a large downhill ski area that, along with the lake, helps anchor McCall’s recreation economy.
The HOA, Looper explained, is opposed to the swap. It and a couple other groups hired a lobbyist to fight it last fall. “We’ve always known that this property will be developed,” he said. “We just want to make sure it’s developed prudently.”
To Looper and other homeowners in Pilgrim Cove, “prudently” means with hiking trails and bikeways, in a manner that matches the current housing density, doesn’t strain sewer and other utility systems, and preserves trees. An Idaho Department of Lands document estimates that more than 150 homes could be built in this area; Looper was talking about an additional 25.
Looper is also the president and CEO of Brundage and the head of the local group that bought it from its longtime owners in the fall of 2020. Brundage’s ski runs cover about 3,000 acres of Forest Service land, and it owns 388 acres around the base — land acquired in the mid-aughts in a land exchange with the Forest Service.
Subsequent plans approved by Adams County, where Brundage is located, allow for up to 1,200 homes, condos or hotel rooms to be built, although, because the development would be on the far side of a ridgeline, it wouldn’t be within the Payette Lake watershed. Looper and the other owners intend to start building the first phase — 50-100 units — this year.
Back in Pilgrim Cove, the neighborhood was quiet; the road was narrow, and we passed only a few other people out walking. “You would hate to have this be a throughway for cars and people,” Looper said.
Moratorium in effect on sale, lease of endowment lands
Southeast of Payette Lake, around a reservoir called Little Payette Lake, there’s another section of endowment land included in Trident’s proposal. I visited it with Williams on a Saturday. Vehicles were parked everywhere along the road and in small pullouts, many of them big pickup trucks with empty snowmobile trailers. At the edge of the reservoir, the snow was wet and heavy, the wind cold and humming.
The packed pullouts showed the need for infrastructure improvements, Williams said, including more parking lots and trailheads. “In everything — whether it’s conservation or access or recreation or all these other different things that people value about this place — it’s not just a chance to protect what we like about it,” Williams told me earlier, when we finally found a narrow shoulder to park. “It’s a chance to make it even better.”
For PELA, making it better lies in solutions not tied to private development. I visited the same spot with some of them on a weekday, when there were just a handful of cars in the pullouts. We walked along a creek that was open in places, the rushing water dark against the white of the snow covering its banks.
Mousseau, who printed the anti-land-exchange yard signs, told me about a few of PELA’s ideas. Conservation easements, for example, would allow the Department of Lands to profit from keeping the land undeveloped, and the agency could still offer timber sales or grazing leases on those parcels.
Other states and communities have found ways to make money from their endowment lands without developing large portions of them. Colorado, for example, amended its Constitution in 1996 to consider not just economic returns, but other public values as well, including “the beauty, natural values, open space, and wildlife habitat thereof.” In Whitefish, Montana, endowment land officials and community members came together in the early aughts to create a collaborative plan aimed at keeping land in timber production or finding ways to conserve it.
And in 2006, the Idaho Department of Lands agreed to a land swap with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management that transferred about 4,500 acres in southern Idaho to the federal agencies. The city of Boise initiated the exchange to keep the Boise Foothills from being developed, using proceeds from a voter-approved levy.
It was getting late, so we turned back toward our cars. Mousseau told me about the need for a long-term advisory council, a group of stakeholders who could provide input and support to the Department of Lands regarding the future of the area. Later, in late February, at the agency focus group’s final gathering, several members mentioned the need to keep meeting. “I don’t think you can make the decisions in a vacuum,” Mousseau told me.
For now, the moratorium on selling or leasing the endowment land around Payette Lake is still in place. Even after it’s lifted, it could take months or years of appraisals and analysis before the Land Board makes a final decision on Trident’s application.
But the sense of urgency — the local desire to find a permanent way to conserve the landscape — shows no sign of abating. Nor does the influx of newcomers to places like McCall. In the meantime, the town’s residents will keep looking for ways to meet the Land Board’s mandate, as well as their own.
When we were almost back to our cars, we ran into another member of PELA and her husband; they’d driven out to walk their dogs, two wirehaired pointing griffons. The winter dusk began to gather around us, but the PELA members seemed reluctant to part. Instead, they lingered, shivering and planning and talking about what to do next.
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Editor’s note: The Land Board is expected to vote Tuesday, March, 16, on whether to adopt the strategy document that would help guide decisions on trust land management. It is also expected to vote on whether to lift the moratorium on new sales, leases or exchanges on endowment lands around McCall.
Emily Benson is an associate editor at High Country News, covering the northwest, the northern Rockies and Alaska. Email her at [email protected]