BOISE, Idaho -- Federal land managers overseeing southeastern Idaho's phosphate mining patch are considering selling off more than 1,100 acres of public land to accommodate the newest mining project by the J.R. Simplot Co.
The Bureau of Land Management posted a notice Tuesday outlining a plan to get fair market value for a tract considered essential to Simplot's Dairy Syncline Mine, planned in the mountains about 10 miles east of Soda Springs.
Like most ongoing, future and historic mining in the region, the Dairy Sincline project is likely to stir opposition from environmentalists and mining foes concerned about the impact on the region's wildlife, natural resources and access to other public land by recreationists.
But for now, critics are raising concerns about the agency's unprecedented plan -- and the potential consequences -- of turning over public land to a private developer. BLM officials also said selling land outright to facilitate a phosphate mining project has never been done before.
Environmentalists said putting the 1,142-acre tract into private hands would inhibit their ability to influence the mine's final operation plan and limit federal oversight of the mine.
"We just have a much better ability to insert ourselves in a project and to get important changes made if they are on public lands instead of private," said Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesman Marv Hoyt. "But there is also the question of when public lands are sold, and it doesn't matter to who, the public not only risks losing the resource value, but access to other lands."
The acreage identified for sale is also adjacent to U.S. Forest Service property. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest, in separate negotiations, is considering a land exchange for another 400 acres at the site.
Simplot uses phosphate to manufacture fertilizer. Altogether, the sale and exchanges would give the company land it needs to build a permanent facility to store mining waste. Some of those mine tailings could contain traces of selenium, a mining byproduct that has been blamed for polluting streams and killing livestock in the region.
The BLM and Forest Service will each conduct an environmental study on the land deals and the mine project.
Jeff Cundick, minerals branch chief for the BLM in Pocatello, said a final decision on the mine plan is projected for 2013.
The BLM sees selling the land as good public policy. The tract is one of dozens of isolated parcels across the region that have limited use and access, and are costly to manage, Cundick said.
"In the past, we have not sold tracts of land for phosphate mining purposes," Cundick said. "But this is really in the public's interest to do so. If our land use plan says get rid of isolated parcels, and if this is something Simplot wants, then it makes sense."