Timber Tycoon Developer Now Owns Chunk of Idaho

Tim Blixseth, the new owner of 180,000 acres of Idaho timberland, says he wants to be a good neighbor. Blixseth has plans to trade tens of thousands of acres of former Boise Cascade lands in the Payette River canyon to protect one of the state's most familiar scenic treasures.

BOISE — Tim Blixseth, the new owner of 180,000 acres of Idaho timberland, says he wants to be a good neighbor.

Blixseth has plans to trade tens of thousands of acres of former Boise Cascade lands in the Payette River canyon to protect one of the state's most familiar scenic treasures.

Blixseth also has bought a place in downtown Boise and plans to hold on indefinitely to the large tree farm spread across south-central Idaho from Weiser to New Meadows to McCall, Cascade and southeast to around Idaho City.

"I've had many chances to sell the Idaho tree farm for a good premium," Blixseth said. "I told them it's not for sale."

But he has a lot of talking to do if he's going to convince Ed Wood of his good intentions. Loggers are clearcutting Blixseth's land next to Wood's Round Valley ranch. Wood, a 20-year resident, is skeptical Blixseth won't cut off the trees and build subdivisions.

The former Boise Cascade lands have always been open to hunters and recreation use. But much of the land could be valuable for development, especially in Valley County near the new Tamarack Resort, where land values have skyrocketed.

Blixseth says Idahoans shouldn't worry.

"We're not interested in selling property and will probably buy even more property," Blixseth said. "Development is a long way away."

Blixseth, 54, is the developer of the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky in Montana, a private golf and ski resort development marketed to people with a net worth of $3 million or more. He has bought and sold hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland in the past 20 years in the Pacific Northwest and Montana for logging, development and conservation.

Blixseth had wanted Boise Cascade land for years

Blixseth bought the land from Forest Capital Partners in March, only seven weeks after the Boston-based company bought all of Boise Cascade's approximately 2.2 million acres of timberland in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alabama, Louisiana and Minnesota for $1.65 billion in cash. Blixseth had attempted to buy the land from Boise Cascade for three years. He even made a play to buy the entire wood products company but was outbid by current owner Madison Dearborn.

He also bought 195,000 acres in Washington as a part of the deal with Forest Capital. He plans a 175,000-acre land trade with the state of Washington this week that will turn over much of that timberland to the state.

The initial sale from Boise Cascade gained national media coverage. But since both Forest Capital and Blixseth's company, Western Pacific Timberlands, are private, they did not make public announcements about their deal.

"We don't do press releases on all of our transactions," said Scott Jones, co-president of Forest Capital Partners, which still owns 280,000 acres in northern Idaho.

Sound of chainsaws heralded change

Wood is skeptical of Blixseth's neighborliness because Boise Cascade had not done clearcutting around him during the 20 years since he moved to Round Valley.

"The first time we knew anything was happening we heard chainsaws and tree processors," said Wood. "When we saw what on God's Earth was going on, we were outraged."

He is not convinced about the need for clearcutting or about the company's commitment to sustainable forestry.

Steve Gurnsey, land manager for Western Pacific Timberlands, said he's using the same forest prescription Boise Cascade did. He was Boise Cascade's manager of the same lands.

The clearcut is necessary because of beetles that are killing the white fir that dominates the stand of trees, said Gurnsey. He plans to replant the area in ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and larch.

"Right now the forest is dying faster than it's growing," Gurnsey said.

One difference from Boise Cascade's management is that the lands are no longer certified through the Sustained Forestry Initiative (SFI). Certification required extensive record-keeping and regular inspections by a third party. Gurnsey doesn't think the cost is justified.

But Forest Capital's Jones said he considers certification necessary.

"We are long-term timber operators," Jones said. "We believe SFI is consistent with good stewardship. It's how we do business."

Blixseth defers to his forester Gurnsey on the issue.

"I don't know much about it," Blixseth said. "I do know we're doing sustained yield forestry. We may even cut less timber than Boise."

Conservation opportunities

Blixseth sees several conservation opportunities for land trades with the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands. In addition to the Payette River corridor, he owns 10,000 acres on the back side of West Mountain -- where Tamarack is located -- that he thinks has scenic value and should be owned by the Forest Service.

He also wants to buy another unnamed tract that, when combined with some of his land, would fit into the Boise or Payette national forests. Overall, he could trade up to 115,000 acres to consolidate his holdings and meet public needs, he said.

That fits his record. In addition to the Washington land swap planned this week, he previously made land swaps in Washington, Oregon and Montana with the federal government. In the '90s, Blixseth purchased 164,000 acres of Plum Creek timber lands scattered throughout the Gallatin National Forest.

He proposed building a ski resort in the heart of the most valuable wildlife habitat north of Yellowstone National Park. After negotiations with the federal government and environmentalists, he agreed to sell and exchange 100,000 acres to the Forest Service, keeping the developable land near Big Sky -- 22 square miles.

Bart Koehler, now with the Wilderness Society in Durango, Colo., negotiated with Blixseth on the Gallatin deals for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and he found him very savvy.

"Tim is a very capable person," Koehler said. "He's capable of making a lot of money in very smart ways, and he's very capable of reaching agreements that result in rock-solid conservation that will last over time."

Idaho Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, grazes cattle on some of Blixseth's land but has not yet met him. But Little wonders what Blixseth ultimately seeks in Idaho.

"He's got something he wants, if he has in mind a land trade," Little said.

A club for millionaires

In Montana, Blixseth's dream was the Porcupine ski resort he planned on lands he sold to the Forest Service. On the land he kept, he built the Yellowstone Club, billed as the world's first private ski and golf resort. Blixseth requires prospective members to prove a net worth of $3 million or more before paying a $250,000 initiation fee and $16,000 in yearly dues.

In addition to skiing, the club includes an 18-hole championship golf course, club house, ski lodge, tennis courts, equestrian center, health and fitness facilities, hiking trails, wilderness cabins, a lake for fly fishing and private home sites.

While building the resort, Blixseth violated federal and state water quality laws designed to keep sediment out of rivers and streams, resulting in fines exceeding $2 million.

Blixseth said he has ordered Gurnsey and his Idaho team to avoid "a single violation."

His latest dream is Yellowstone Club World, a global resort club with properties already in St. Andrew's, Scotland, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Alaska. He eventually wants to buy resort properties around the world for use exclusively by his members. The membership fee is on a sliding scale up to $10 million.

Idaho's land has an uncertain future

Little hopes most of Blixseth's Idaho lands remain in sustainable forestry and eventually help attract a new timber industry in the region that can help the Forest Service thin and manage its forests. Wood, Blixseth's Round Valley neighbor, also wants to see the forest tracts remain intact, to continue as important wildlife habitat and beautiful scenery.

"This is a recreation treasure for Idaho," Wood said.

Blixseth said his intention is to manage the land for timber, but acknowledges he didn't buy the land simply to protect the Payette corridor.

"It does take quite a bit of money to buy these things," Blixseth said. "There has to be an up side for me."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News