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Today, Kootenai Environmental Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mandate to remove the trees along the Rosenberry Drive (“The Dike Road”) in Coeur d’Alene.  The lawsuit alleges that the Corps failed to perform an adequate environmental analysis, and that the Corps is attempting to enforce a memorandum that isn’t actually a law. The Gonzaga University School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic represents Kootenai Environmental Alliance in this case.

In an inspection just over a year ago, the Corps of Engineers cited the City of Coeur d’Alene for more than a hundred maintenance deficiencies on the flood control equipment that purportedly protects North Idaho College and the Fort Grounds neighborhood from flooding. Among the deficiencies cited by the Corps was the fact that the hundreds of mature Ponderosa pine trees that line the earthen levee portion were in violation of the Corps’ standing vegetation policy for levees.  To correct the deficiency, the City of Coeur d’Alene was instructed to cut the trees, remove the roots, and re-construct the levee embankments. To maintain the critically important certification for the levee, the City was given two years to comply.

The KEA lawsuit alleges that, at some point, the Corps of Engineers should have performed some sort of environmental analysis for the vegetation removal – either at the national program policy level, or at the local implementation level.  The Corps has essentially done neither, which KEA alleges is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

We believe an environmental impact statement, if actually done, would show that the Corps policy would be devastating to the City of Coeur d’Alene, as well as communities around the country facing similar mandates. Moreover, a hard look at the environmental impacts would also show that there is essentially no scientific basis for a sweeping one-size-fits-all tree removal requirement.

In the lawsuit, KEA also alleges that the requirement that the City remove the trees is derived essentially from a Corps of Engineers memorandum, not actual regulations. For regulatory requirements to be enforceable, they should have been published in the Federal Register and opened up to the public for comment. That didn’t happen.

In many respects, the KEA lawsuit mirrors a lawsuit filed in California regarding the Corps of Engineers vegetation policy that would require removal of a huge swath of habitat in the Sacramento region. That lawsuit is still pending, and was recently joined by the California Department of Fish and Game.

The Corps of Engineers will be officially served with the lawsuit in the coming days. The complaint (a 20 page pdf) is available here:

2011-12-07 Complaint KEA v Army Corps

 

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With the generous assistance of our local Congressman, the dike road tree petitions are on their way to Washington DC. This morning, Adrienne and I delivered the stack of signatures to Rep. Raul Labrador’s Coeur d’Alene office. The Congerssman’s staff says they will take it from here.

Our petition is directed at Hon. Jo-Ellen Darcy, the U.S. Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, whose office is in the Pentagon. We’re asking her to reconsider the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ policy that may require the City of Coeur d’Alene to remove all the trees from the earthen levee separating the beach from North Idaho College.  It says simply:

“We, the undersigned, object to the levee vegetation policy as currently implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would result in the removal of hundreds of trees along the Rosenberry Drive levee embankment in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The trees are not a danger to flood control, and they provide the city with significant and irreplaceable environmental, aesthetic, and recreational values. We urge you to reconsider the policy so that we may preserve our trees.”

Our final tally came in at just over 4400 signatures, which is a remarkable total for our small North Idaho community. Although we had a handful of out-of-town signers, most were from the immediate area, with the vast majority from Coeur d’Alene.

Congressman Labrador’s office assures us that the stack of signatures will land on Secretary Darcy’s desk in the very near future, and the Congressman’s great staff will keep us informed of the progress. Thanks to everyone who signed the petition, and special thanks to Rep. Labrador for being sure it will be delivered.

 

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KEA obtained a press release announcing that California’s Department of Fish and Game will be joining a lawsuit brought by environmental groups fighting the Corps of Engineers’ policy requiring vegetation removal from levees. The lawsuit alleges that the Corps failed to perform a proper NEPA analysis on the levee vegetation policy and that the policy violates the Endangered Species Act.

Coeur d’Alene’s problem is horrible, but California’s may be worse — requiring miles and miles of tree removal and habitat destruction at a $7.5 billion price tag. Having a state agency involved in the litigation puts significant additional pressure on the Corps. KEA is currently reviewing the filings in the lawsuit for possible application to Coeur d’Alene’s dike road trees.

The California Department of Fish and Game press release dated November 9th:

The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) today commenced the process to join federal litigation that challenges the removal of vegetation on levees. 

The case, Friends of the River, et. al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, et. al. was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. It essentially challenges the Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) adoption of a national policy that requires removing virtually all trees and shrubs on federal levees. 

DFG, along with many other local, state and federal agencies, has been in discussion with the Corps about this policy for several years, said DFG Director Charlton H. Bonham. Its unfortunate that the discussions havent led to a more agreeable outcome, but if adhered to, the policy will do incredible damage to Californias remaining riparian and adjacent riverine ecosystem, especially in the Central Valley.

Roundtable discussions on the policy have included the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), Central Valley Flood Protection Board, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. DWR and DFG have repeatedly expressed concerns about the policy in letters to the Corps. The policy has also received pushback from farmers and other water users.

The Central Valley is home to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Flood Management System. This flood protection system has approximately 1,600 miles of federal project levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and tributaries. This policy would require removing most of the remaining five percent of riparian forest there.

Riparian habitat is essential for several endangered species including Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, riparian brush rabbit, Western yellow-billed cuckoo and Swainson’s hawk. Moreover, the riparian habitat provides scenic beauty and recreational enjoyment for people up and down the river.

The policy adopted by the Corps fails to comply with either the National Environmental Policy Act or the federal Endangered Species Act.

Historically, the Corps has allowed and even encouraged the planting of trees and other vegetation on California levees. They have even collaborated with state and federal agencies in developing levee design approaches intended to benefit federal- and state-listed threatened and endangered species. The new policy directly conflicts with their past actions.

DFG and DWR estimate that complying with the Corps’ policy could cost up to $7.5 billion and divert funds away from more significant levee deficiencies like seepage and erosion.

DFG seeks to join current plaintiffs in the case including Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

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We got the phone call the other day and an email confirmation yesterday, and we’re pleased to say that KEA will be represented on the City of Coeur d’Alene’s new ad hoc committee to deal with the dike road trees. An initial meeting will be scheduled for mid-November.

Recall that a Corps of Engineers inspection is calling for removal of the 500 mature trees along the levee between North Idaho College and the waterfront. KEA has initiated a petition drive calling on the Corps to review its levee vegetation policy as applied here in Coeur d’Alene.

Along with KEA, appointees to the committee include representatives from North Idaho College, the Centennial Trail, Fort Grounds homeowners, the 4-Counties Natural Resources Committee, Councilman John Bruning, and State Senator John Goedde. Other appointees include experts in hydrology, tree removal, and forestry.  The committee will work with City staff, including the City Engineer, the City Administrator and City’s Urban Forester.

Preliminarily, according to the email confirmation, the committee will be tasked with coming up to speed on the issues, helping to review alternatives, helping to gather information and resources, and helping to communicate with the public. We’re eager to get started.

Meanwhile, in other updates, our eyes and ears have noted city crews beginning work on unrelated flood control deficiencies noted by the Corps of Engineers in their inspection. Also, we continue to gather signatures on our petition. With more than 4000 signatures online and on paper, we are making one final push to 5000 before delivering the signatures in November.

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After more than 1700 online signatures, and about the same number of signatures on paper, the most frequent hesitation to our Save the Dike Road Trees petition has been of the “I don’t live in Coeur d’Alene” variety.

Our response is: go ahead and sign. We want all the signatures we can get, of course, but our response is not without some rationale.

First, the petition is directed at the Assistant Secretary for the Army for Civil Works. This is the person who we think has the most direct authority to make changes to the Corps of Engineers vegetation policy and how it is implemented. This person has national authority and national accountability and so we think anyone in the nation should be able to join our petition for redress.

Second, the Corps’ vegetation policy is actually a national policy. The policy is applied in Coeur d’Alene the same way it is applied across the country – regardless of the flood threat, regardless of soil characteristics, and regardless of the trees. In fact, the one conclusion drawn from the otherwise inconclusive science is that threats to levee safety from vegetation can best be made with site-specific assessments. Communities across the country who are not getting these site-specific assessments are welcome, therefore, to join in our petition.

Finally, our community is made up of people from around the country and around the world. And our economy depends on people from around the country and around the world who come to visit. Or, who might want to come to visit in the future. We think that these visitors, future visitors, residents and future residents might have a stake in whether the trees stay.

So go ahead. Sign the petition.  And feel free to get your out of town friends to sign too.

 

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There’s simply not a travel destination in the world where the most memorable feature is plenty of free parking.  A vast expanse of pavement is usually not where you want to be, rather it’s an unfortunate and forgettable layover separating you from your real destination.  Indeed, increasingly, the lack of parking or very expensive parking are considered a reliable indicator that you’re in a great urban place. There’s a “walkability index” calculation available for neighborhoods across the country. Parkability is not an actual thing.

So again this year, with the generous good humor of the City of Coeur d’Alene, KEA will be participating in the annual global Park(ing) Day event calling for a reclamation of parking places for the benefit of people and parks.  We will reclaim a few downtown spaces on Friday to make our point.

PARK(ing) Day at Art Spirit Gallery 2010 - photo by KEA BlackberryCam

Admittedly, downtown Coeur d’Alene is probably the most walkable and appealing destination in our entire region. But it’s not because of parking.  In fact, much of the plan for renovating McEuen Park is motivated by removing a dreadful mistake of a parking lot from what is an extraordinary lakeside location.  We’re not exactly fans of the replacement parking plans — we think the replacement parking is still oversupplied, expensive, and incorrectly located — but the controversy itself is perhaps a good sign.  The more we really think about the costs, the more likely we’ll free ourselves from the burden of cheap parking.

 

 

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This Thursday, noon, at the Iron Horse, we’ll have an update briefing on the Corps of Engineers death sentence for the dike road trees. Coeur d’Alene City Councilman John Bruning will give an update from the City’s perspective, including a discussion of a new ad hoc committee being formed.  And Terry Harris from KEA will give an update on what is becoming an extraordinary campaign to save the trees. (Here’s the online petition, by the way)

The briefing will mark the fall-season kick-off of the 39th consecutive year of regularly-scheduled general informational meetings at the Iron Horse by Kootenai Environmental Alliance, the oldest non-profit conservation organization in Idaho.

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