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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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