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Archive for the ‘Forests’ Category

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on at least one bill to address the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS), which supplies rural counties with federal cash to counterbalance declining forest products revenues. As it turns out, the federal government is out of money.

The imminent end of SRS is of some serious concern to North Idaho counties which have received millions of dollars in direct annual payments which may no longer arrive. Recently, several Idaho counties floated a trial balloon for a “Community Forest Trust” in which the federal government would set aside some 200,000 acres of federal forest lands in Idaho for local management under local laws for local revenues.

While we’re sincerely sympathetic to the plight of the rural counties, we’re concerned that some of the solutions proposed so far are ill-advised, and would likely compound the problem of funding local government services. In a letter sent today to the Shoshone County Commissioners who solicited our input on the counties’ proposal, KEA noted:

The proposal would essentially transfer land out of public control and established multiple-use management and would eliminate environmental and procedural protections that have served to improve our forests, watersheds, and wildlife resources.  Moreover, ultimately, we don’t know that such a proposal would solve the structural economic problems the SRS was intended to bridge.

Our letter described major concerns with the environmental protections, the selection of the trust lands, the accountability of the trust and trustees, the value lost to the federal taxpayer, and the legal difficulties posed by federal ownership but local control.  But our letter was also concerned about the failure to see handwriting on the wall:

While we absolutely concur that rural Idaho counties need a long-term solution for schools and roads funding, ultimately, coupling a solution to federal lands management may be too constrictive. For example, broadband, health care, education, and clean energy are economic sectors we’d emphasize for more sustained growth, and we’d certainly hope Congress would focus on those opportunities in the SRS reauthorization debate.

Indeed, this proposal of a Community Forest Trust appears to be a doubling-down on a bet that forest resources will be an economic engine like it was several decades ago.  Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence that it’ll work. Currently on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, there is a huge backlog inventory of timber “sold” by the federal government but not yet actually cut. And mills continue to close — not for lack of timber supply, but for lack of product demand. A Community Forest Trust, which would presumably put more timber onto the market to generate revenue for the Trust, would only compound the current supply and demand imbalance.

This is a tough spot for counties, which will have immediate financial needs that will go unmet if SRS isn’t reauthorized. There are lots of ideas on how to do things better. But the counties shouldn’t be clamoring for Congress to make things worse.

Update 9/21: Here’s a statement from Congressman Labrador. “Congressman Labrador and the county commissioners from throughout Idaho were unanimous in their desire to find a solution that would increase the revenue stream from our federal forests.”  Why? “Diseased forests on a colossal scale in immediate danger of catastrophic wildfire.”  No risk of understatement by our Congressman.

 

 

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Today, KEA filed comments on the draft Forest Planning Rule, proposed by the U.S. Forest Service to govern how forest plans are drafted and, ultimately, how forests are managed into the future. The current rule has been in effect since 1982, and since then, all subsequent efforts to revise the rule have failed.

Our comments are less extensive and less technical, but they track the comments of other national conservation organizations, emphasizing the need to restore and protect watersheds and wildlife habitat, and the need to preserve roadless areas and the last remaining tracts of land with wilderness potential. Timber production and higher-impact recreational activities need to be regulated and zoned to suitable locations, and they must no longer be allowed to damage the resources.

Meanwhile, a new forest plan for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests is expected to be released this summer under the old planning rule.

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In a letter dated March 4th, the district managers for both the Coeur d’Alene and Boise districts of the BLM rejected the proposed land exchange that would have transferred some 9000 acres of North Idaho BLM property to M3, in exchange for some 11,000 acres of M3 lands in the Boise foothills.  M3, an Arizona-based development company with an interest in a large development proposal outside of Eagle, had intended to immediately flip the North Idaho BLM properties to the Idaho Forest Group for timber harvesting. In the letter, BLM says “We have concluded this exchange proposal is not in the public’s best interest.”

Last summer, KEA submitted a letter to Congressional representatives and BLM sharply critical of the proposed exchange.

According to the BLM’s analysis, the acquisition of the sagebrush steppe southern parcels was not equivalent to the loss of high natural resource and timber values of the forested North Idaho lands. BLM noted specifically that the value of the North Idaho properties would be expected to increase substantially in value, while the value of the southern parcels would “remain at or near current value” due to their limited development potential.

The BLM also noted that many of the North Idaho parcels proposed for exchange had high resource values for “wildlife, fisheries, recreation, open space, timber, and threatened and endangered species habitat and connectivity” that were not equaled by the southern properties.

Notably, the BLM letter seemed to foreclose any further action on this exchange for the immediate future. The letter says BLM will not consider “further modifications or refinements” from M3 until the BLM’s Boise office completes its planning process for the Four Rivers area, where the southern part of the exchange would occur. The Four Rivers plan is expected to be completed in 2013.

 

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In yet another attempt to update regulations for planning on National Forests, today, the U.S. Forest Service released a draft planning rule for public comment. The current regulations for forest planning date back to 1982. Attempts at revision have been delayed, scuttled, or struck down by courts. The new rule would apply nationally to some 155 National Forests, including our own Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

According to the Forest Service press release, “The proposed planning rule provides a collaborative and science-based framework for creating land management plans that would support ecological sustainability and contribute to rural job opportunities. The proposed rule includes new provisions to guide forest and watershed restoration and resilience, habitat protection, sustainable recreation, and management for multiple uses of the National Forest System, including timber.”

The new rule will be subject to a comment period scheduled to end May 16. A public meeting on the rule has been tentatively scheduled for Coeur d’Alene in March.

 

 

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We just sent our letter off to the U.S. Forest Service calling for a winter closure of a road on 4th of July Pass so that quiet ski and snowshoe hiking can continue without motorized disruptions.

We submitted a letter to support a Special Use Permit proposal from Panhandle Nordic Ski Club which calls for the Forest Service to close roads 614 and 918 to motorized winter travel. KEA originally submitted comments to the Forest Service in April 2009 supporting winter closure of FSR 614 in favor of non-motorized winter recreation.

From our letter:

Allowing motorized vehicles to travel FSR 614 in winter is fundamentally incompatible with the predominant and traditional non-motorized winter uses in that location.  Motorized uses ruin cross country ski tracks, disrupt attempts to groom ski trails, and introduce unwanted noise and exhaust fumes.  Cross country skiers and snowshoe hikers seek and need quiet Forest Service roads to enjoy their sports. More generally, motorized uses are also disruptive of wildlife habitat and can cause trail damage lead to erosion and watershed impacts. Still, motorized winter sports enthusiasts have an abundance of trails located north of I-90 and elsewhere in the Coeur d’Alene River District.

Anyone interested in commenting should sent a quick note to the NEPA Coordinator, Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, 2502 E. Sherman Ave., Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814. Comments are due by February 25th.

 

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We got word today that the U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn the massive Lakeview-Reeder project which would have authorized commercial harvesting of more than 2300 acres near Priest Lake. According to a letter signed by Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Renotta McNair, “The Forest Service will not proceed with the activities proposed by the Lakeview Reeder Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project unless and until we undertake further analysis in accordance with all applicable law and make a new decision.”

The environmental community was sharply critical of the proposed sale on a number of grounds, but the Forest Service’s decision appears to be rooted in a recent federal appeals court decision that was critical of how the Forest Service manages wildlife habitat.

The wildlife biology is quite complex, and the court’s decision is quite complex, and the Lakeview Reeder project has very similar habitat issues to those criticized by the court. So we think it was probably a wise decision by the Forest Service to take another hard look at this project before moving forward with something that might not hold up in a courtroom.

 

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After a couple of days in Shoshone County talking about forest projects, we were pleased upon returning to the office to notice that, as promised, the US Forest Service has finally posted long-overdue monitoring reports for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009. (Scroll down to download a big pdf file under “Forest Plan Monitoring and Evaluation”)

Recall that KEA sent a letter earlier in the summer calling for the reports to be published. The Forest Service responded with a promise that the reports would be finalized and published by August 31st. We’re very happy to announce they’ve kept their promise. So now, we look forward to our own detailed review of the charts, graphs, facts and figures that constitute a snapshot look at the region’s forest resources. We’ll let you know our thoughts on the report once we have some time to digest it.

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After some detailed study and discussion, KEA finally weighed in on the proposed land exchange between Arizona developer M3 Eagle, Idaho Forest Group (IFG), and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), expressing serious concerns.

The complicated exchange would provide M3 with key parcels related to a development proposal just north of Eagle, it would supply BLM with some 12000 acres of M3’s surplus sagebrush steppe lands in the Boise foothills, and it would supply Idaho Forest Group with some 8000 acres of BLM forest lands in North Idaho. M3 and IFG would like the Idaho congressional delegation to jump start the process with legislation to authorize the exchange pending environmental studies. (News coverage available here and here and here.)

KEA has had the opportunity to review presentations on the proposal by BLM’s North Idaho office and by Idaho Forest Group, in which the pros and cons of the proposal were thoroughly explored. In a letter to Congressional representatives sent yesterday, KEA expressed concern with the proposal:

In sum, on the substance, we believe the present proposal drains critical public resources from BLM’s inventory in North Idaho while not providing comparable economic or environmental value in the Boise foothills. On the procedure, we believe that any such proposal should be subjected to a full environmental analysis and a comprehensive parcel-by-parcel appraisal prior to any approvals – legislated or otherwise.

The letter notes that KEA doesn’t necessarily or automatically oppose land exchange proposals with the federal government. Indeed, consolidating parcels for conservation benefit or acquiring recreational access are often accomplished through land exchanges. But this proposal would essentially exhaust BLM’s North Idaho inventory, making local exchanges much more difficult for the foreseeable future.

Most importantly, though, these complex exchanges require a great deal of study first. Each and every parcel needs a thorough environmental assessment and a thorough market appraisal, and these evaluations need to be accomplished — and released for public input — before approvals are given. In this respect, we expressed concern to our congressional delegation that legislation on this proposal would be premature, and probably prejudicially so.

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Just back from vacation in the pine-beetle-ravaged Colorado mountains, I was pleased to see the letter (reproduced below) from Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Ranotta McNair regarding KEA’s request for long-overdue monitoring reports. The annual reports, required under several provisions of federal law, have not been produced since 2007.

 McNair explains that Recovery Act projects have taken USFS staff away from the reporting requirements, but that the reports are on track to be complete by the end of August.

 We certainly hope so. These reports are critical in understanding the state of our local forests, and understanding whether efforts to manage the forests are actually achieving their purposes or not. Moreover, as “collaboration” becomes the new paradigm for localized forest decision-making, availability of good science and good monitoring data becomes increasingly important to those doing the collaboration.

 We’re pleased with the IPNF’s prompt response to our letter, but we remain anxious to see the actual reports.

 The letter in its entirety:

 Dear Mr. Harris,

 With regard to your recent letter expressing concern about the current state of monitoring efforts on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, I want to assure you that we are working hard to issue the monitoring reports as expeditiously as possible.

 Forest monitoring has been completed for each year since 2007, but due to staffing shortages we have been unable to complete all of the written reports. In addition, national priorities have diverted personnel from completing the reports. Our highest priority this past year has been creation of jobs for citizens in the Northern Rockies through Recovery Act projects. Our staffing shortages have been solved, and the majority of the $18 million in Idaho Panhandle National Forests ARRA projects have been contracted. Therefore, we expect to release the overdue monitoring reports no later than August 31, 2010. In addition to the 2007 and 2008 reports we will also be releasing the 2009 monitoring report at the same time, which will bring our forest up to date on monitoring and reporting requirements.

 In closing, I want to assure you that our forest takes these reports seriously and our staffs are working diligently to complete our monitoring reports as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

Ranotta K. McNair

Forest Supervisor

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Kootenai Environmental Alliance has sent a letter to the Forest Supervisor for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF) regarding monitoring reports it has failed to issue. Under the forest plan adopted for this region’s forest, and under federal law, the forest service is required to submit annual monitoring and evaluation reports to the public.  However, reports as far back as 2007 and 2008 have yet to be issued. The letter states, “It appears that the Forest Service has failed to meet the obligations required under the forest plan and federal law, and have unreasonably delayed performing a legally mandated responsibility.  As representatives of the public’s interest in the proper management of our local forest resources, we are once again requesting these [monitoring] results.”

In response to an October inquiry from KEA, the Forest Service noted that the 2007 and 2008 Reports are not available “due to other priorities” but provided assurance that both reports would be issued in the spring of this year, 2010. Of course, spring has come and gone and we are still waiting for the reports.

In KEA’s letter, we point out that the monitoring report is expressly required under the several relevant sections of federal regulations, the most relevant is 36 CFR §219.11(f) which states:

(f) Annual monitoring and evaluation report. The responsible official must prepare a monitoring and evaluation report for the plan area within 6 months following the end of each fiscal year. The report must be maintained with the plan documents (§219.30(d)(5)), and include the following:

(1) A list or reference to monitoring required by the plan; and

(2) A summary of the results of monitoring and evaluation performed during the preceding fiscal year and appropriate results from previous years. The summary must include:

(i) A description of the progress toward achievement of desired conditions within the plan area; and

(ii) A description of the plan area’s contribution to the achievement of applicable outcomes of the Forest Service national strategic plan.

This is no paper exercise.  Numerous collaborative efforts to address forest management issues around the region are underway, and every last one of them will depend on timely monitoring data to guide their efforts.

Having been perhaps too patient for too long, KEA has called on the Forest Service to either release the long-overdue reports or explain “the press of other priorities” that have caused the delay.  We’d certainly like to know what those priorities are, and how those priorities are higher than the monitoring and reporting requirements outlined in federal law.

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