Environmentalists have always said that old-growth trees are worth more alive than logged. Recently, the Forest Service seconded that thought. In October, after five years of negotiations, the agency allowed Idaho sawmill owner Mark Brinkmeyer to swap his 530-acre grove of 1,200-year-old trees at the headwaters of Idaho's Upper Priest Lake for 2,200 acres of national forest.


The ancient trees have risen steadily in value. In 1992, Brinkmeyer paid Plum Creek Timber Co. $2 million for the Western red cedars. These days the timber is valued at $8.7 million. The deal was prolonged by the complexity of the exchange as well as changes in the Forest Service's negotiating team.


By law, the Forest Service had to trade timber land for this high-value tract at a fair-market price. Arlen Olson, an outside facilitator, says publicity surrounding the old-growth cedars probably increased the timber's value, and environmental legislation that slashed Pacific Northwest timber harvests in the early 1990s added to it. Marty Healy, an independent land and timber appraiser, says, "The demand for cedar has been going through the roof."


But this tract can't be measured in dollars, says Dave O'Brien, a Forest Service spokesman. "It's the Mona Lisa of forests," he says. "How a tract like this can be preserved for that long makes it a unique ecosystem. The deal will also preserve wetlands and habitat for rare plants, fish and wildlife."


Environmental groups, timber groups, and both of Idaho's Republican senators applauded the swap. The Forest Service says it plans to manage the grove as a natural conservation area. Still, some observers in Idaho speculate that the cedars never would have been logged and would eventually have been placed in a land trust - a long and costly process. "Thankfully, we'll never know," says Olson. - Sara Phillips