The Forest Service has spent about $50 million over the last 25 years to protect the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in central Idaho from the spread of subdivisions. Its work is about 90 percent complete - conservation easements protect most private land - but unless the Forest Service can work out a last-minute deal, rancher Bob Piva will sell his 160 acres in the Stanley Basin to the highest bidder. His 20 meadow lots with views of jagged peaks could bring $50,000 an acre.


The impending subdivision comes after the Forest Service restricted the size of his herd, which Piva says made grazing cows there unprofitable. So he chose to sell and says that the Forest Service missed its chance to protect the land.


"They've had 25 years to get this thing completed and they can't seem to get it done," he says.


Steve Rinella, a ranger on the 756,000-acre recreation area, says that protecting the Piva property had always been a top priority, but Congress only appropriated money for a conservation easement after Piva threatened to bring in bulldozers. And when the $1.24 million offer came through, it wasn't enough - Piva thinks he can get more than $8 million by selling to homebuyers.


The Sawtooths may get a final chance. Piva and the Sawtooth Society, a private conservation group, are jointly funding a new appraisal. If Piva accepts the appraisal's value, the Forest Service says it will try to match the price.


*Gabriel Ross