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Just a quick note upon return from the mini-vacation, but if you haven’t seen this wonderful column by the wonderful Mary Lou Reed, it deserves a click and a few minutes of your time.  Our great friend, loyal member and KEA founder has captured the dike road trees issue perfectly for the Inlander’s readership:

As many as 500 trees growing along scenic Rosenberry Dike Road in Coeur d’Alene are on the chopping block. This threat sends shivers up and down the spines of the city’s residents. Everyone, including the mayor and members of the City Council, hates the idea.

The dike forms a crescent rim around North Idaho College. The trees provide a graceful curtain of shade between the campus grounds and Lake Coeur d’Alene, just as the current turns lake water into river water and heads downstream toward Spokane.

A few of the candidates for tree slaughter are over 100 feet tall and older than most folks alive today. Such giants are priceless and irreplaceable. We would mourn their loss for years to come.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demands the removal of hundreds of trees along a levee mainly because regulations require it.  Local government tells anguished citizens that there is no choice but to comply, otherwise there will be no relief funds in case of a flood. But, the Corps failed to account for the presence of endangered species. The Corps runs afoul of the Idaho Forest Practices Act. The Corps doesn’t have science to back up their decision-making.

Coeur d’Alene in 2011? Nope. St. Maries in 1997.

One advantage to being the oldest conservation organization in Idaho is that we’ve got some really old files. Indeed, the trees along Coeur d’Alene’s dike road are facing the very same threat from the Corps of Engineers that mature Cottonwood trees along the levees in St. Maries suffered in 1997. Unfortunately, in St. Maries, a lot of trees were lost.

With significant flooding in Benewah County in 1996, the Corps of Engineers took a hard look at the flood protection along the St. Joe River, and the vegetation on the levees came under scrutiny. Of course, the levees were not the weak link in the flood protection in 1996. And trees were not part of any levee failure. Nevertheless, under a federal economic development grant to improve the levees, trees were being cut by Benewah County under instructions by the Corps.

As the trees were coming down, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervened, noting that bald eagle habitat was being eliminated. The Idaho Department of Lands intervened, noting that the tree cutting needed to comply with the Idaho Forest Practices Act.  The science was questioned. The Audubon Society (with local attorney Scott Reed) threatened a lawsuit.

Unfortunately though, much of the damage had been done. The “Shadowy St. Joe” lost a whole lot of its shade.  Ultimately, some trees were spared, some eagle habitat mitigated, but most of the trees were removed in the name of flood control.  Here’s hoping for a better outcome this time.

 

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Rosenberry Trees Petition

By popular demand: download a copy here, circulate it to friends and neighbors, and return it to us at KEA!

UPDATE: Here’s the online version. Link to it, email it, post it to your facebook friends!

 

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Last night, the Coeur d’Alene city council was briefed on the recent edict to remove mature trees from the levee embankment along Rosenberry Drive. Faced with a deadline to respond to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certification inspection, the City agreed to file a mitigation plan which would allow work to begin on items unrelated to the trees. But the plan would also say that with regard to the mature trees, the City would be exploring other mitigation options and waiting until an ongoing science review on levee vegetation is completed.

The Corps readily admits the lack of science to support the policy of tree removal. From a 2009 fact sheet (pdf) from the Corps’ Research and Development arm:

At the request of the USACE Headquarters (HQ), in July 2007, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) conducted an extensive literature review focusing on the effects of woody vegetation on levees. The findings of the review found that no documented evidence exists to prove trees negatively influence levee integrity; however, research is very limited that specifically addresses woody vegetation on levees.

The Corps is presently doing some of this research. And with any luck it’ll be done sooner rather than later. Because, as Councilman Mike Kennedy put it  last night (to the best of my notes), “It would be a crime to cut down all the trees only to be told the next day that the Corps has changed its policy due to new science.”

Given the circumstances, buying as much time as possible is about the only good option for the City of Coeur d’Alene right now. And we’re glad the Council took that approach.

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An incompetent Corps of Engineers and an inflexible FEMA are about to destroy a Coeur d’Alene treasure unnecessarily. The out-of-town and out-of-control federal agencies are blindly calling for the City of Coeur d’Alene to remove hundreds of mature trees from the dike that follows the lake and riverfront around City Park and North Idaho College. (News coverage here, here, here, and here.)

Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, the dike runs just less than a mile and it purports to protect NIC and the Fort Grounds area from 100-year flood events. The main significance, however, is that the dike protects NIC and the Fort Grounds from unreasonable flood insurance premiums.

Nationwide, FEMA administers the flood insurance program for properties in potential flood zones. Very high premiums for very limited coverage are available to properties built in an area at high risk for floods. However, areas protected by a dike certified by the Corps of Engineers are not considered high-risk. If not certified by the Corps of Engineers, FEMA won’t consider the dike as sufficient flood protection. Burned by the experience in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, both the Corps and FEMA are taking a much harder look at dike certifications around the country.

In a recent inspection, the hammer fell on Coeur d’Alene. A third-party inspection team found some 137 deficiencies in the flood protection system. Many of the deficiencies are minor, and many are legitimate, but the tree-removal issue is the most significant. According to the directive from the Corps of Engineers, all trees on the dike – along the road and to the base of both sides of the dike – will need to be removed. All the roots from the trees will need to be removed. And the dike will then need to be reconstructed to patch the tree-removal.

At a briefing to the City’s Public Works Committee, Coeur d’Alene engineer Gordon Dobler asked for approval of a mitigation plan to address the deficiencies. The full City Council will need to approve the plan at their next meeting. The cost to implement the plan is not entirely clear.

We hope the city pushes back. KEA would be the first to defend a federal environmental agency decision when it is based in clear law and regulation, sound science, and with the public health and safety a foremost priority. This, however, is not the case in this Corps of Engineers decision.

The Corps actually acknowledges that there is no scientific basis for their restriction of vegetation in flood control levees. The Corps’ regulatory authority doesn’t come from law or regulation, but rather an “Engineering Technical Letter” disconnected from what the regulations (pdf) actually require. And the local impacts could be significant. For one thing, the dike is likely to contain toxic materials from mine wastes which would have thoroughly contaminated the shoreline when the dike was constructed in the 1940s. Tearing up the dike could make a real mess. And who knows how much it’ll cost.

The last major flood event that would have seriously implicated the dike was in 1933, before the dike was built.  More recent floods – like in 1997, 2008, and this past year – have not come close to inundating the dike. Certainly, flood control lessons learned in Minot, North Dakota this year should not be lost on anyone, but a more realistic assessment of risks and costs might argue in favor of keeping the trees. Or coming up with a different approach.

In any event, we hope the City Council will shelve the tree-removal decision until more can be known and options can be studied. The trees provide real value to the park and the community every day. Removing them to accommodate out-of-town federal agencies acting only on fear and a hunch and remote probabilities would be a shame.

UPDATE: Here’s the online version. Link to it, email it, post it to your facebook friends!

 

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