By Andrew Ottoson
Idaho County Free Press
“What is the compatibility of timber harvest, road development, water quality and…fish habitat?”
Decades after the local forests last tried to address such sweeping forest policy questions, the Forest Service is at it again.
Two years into the process of modernizing the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests management plan, the Forest Service published a “preliminary proposal for changes to the current forest plans” in July. Born from a series of public meetings that began in 2012 and culminating in a public comment period that closed last month, the “scoping process” for the combined forests’ first combined plan — one of the first steps required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — is nearly complete.
Two years in, one more year to go
It may take another year for the Forest Service to decide on what the new plan will be. Under NEPA, federal agencies are required to consider alternatives before making a decision on a major proposal — and for the combined forests, there is no bigger decision to be made than what the new plan will say. Like other forest plans, the one the Nez Perce-Clearwater has proposed defines key details, including how much timber the forests will try to cut, which areas will be recommended wilderness and what steps the forests will take to protect oceangoing fish.
Along with a wide range of other public input, the initial public meetings, known as the planning collaborative, helped the forests write the proposed action. Planners are now in the process of reviewing thousands of comments from individuals, government agencies and interest groups — many of which mix support, suggestions and criticism.
After producing what they call a “content review” of all the comments, the Nez Perce-Clearwater will begin to develop alternatives to consider alongside the proposal.
As the process moves forward, the forests will incorporate even more public input. Tentatively, the forests are aiming to bring a planning collaborative together on the alternatives in mid-March, 2015, according to Nez Perce-Clearwater staff officer Joyce Thompson.
“We’re still in discussions about how we could involve the public as we prepare the draft environmental impact statement,” Thompson noted. “We anticipate that the comment period on the DEIS will begin in November.”
Limited land for multiple uses
In 1987, then-forest supervisor Tom Kovalicky shepherded through the forest plan that now stands to be updated. The 1987 plan set an “allowable sale quantity” (ASQ) of 138 million board feet annually from the Nez Perce National Forest which has since been combined with the Clearwater National Forest. Crafting a single plan for the combined forests is one of the main purposes the proposed action aims to fulfil.
Now Kovalicky speaks on behalf of Idaho Rivers United, a conservation group that participated in the planning collaborative. He said 15 percent of all the Columbia River Basin’s spawning habitat is within the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and argued that the economics involved with the area’s salmon and steelhead productivity should put fisheries on equal footing with other uses.
“We can have jobs and trees at any cost, or we can have jobs and trees and wildlife and fisheries and many other things, too — if we plan it,” Kovalicky said. “People want jobs, but they told us over and over ‘not at the cost of ruining the quality of life.’”
What land is fit for timber production?
The proposed action provides for many uses, but some public commenters — notably the Idaho County Commission and the Clearwater Basin Collaborative — suggested the proposed action may not be able to achieve everything it sets out to accomplish without dedicating more money and more land to timber production.
The proposal maps the areas the combined forests see as suitable for timber production and specifies how much timber the combined forests will try to sell. But it also identifies areas that may be taken out of timber production. It names places where watersheds are to be improved and notes 23 sections of creeks and rivers that are eligible for “wild and scenic” designation. It also revives the idea of recommending the Hoodoo/Great Burn area and the Mallard Larkins for wilderness designation.
Under the proposal, reaching the high end of the combined forests’ timber sale objective — a “planned sale quantity” (PSQ) of up to 150 million board feet per year — would depend on whether federal funding were available to ramp up from the current level of about 58 million board feet per year.
That amount of timber harvest would not be enough, according to the Clearwater Basin Collaborative — a forest policy group established in 2009 in search of common ground among local industrial, governmental and environmental interests:
“At this low level of harvest the forests would never achieve desired conditions presented in the proposed action,” CBC co-chairs Alex Irby and Dale Harris wrote Oct. 3. “Therefore, the Forests are encouraged to develop and strongly consider an alternative that analyzes an accelerated restoration program that yields 150 million board feet in the first decade and 120 million board feet in the second decade, with future projections based on the level of activity needed to achieve desired conditions, not constrained by the budget.”
The proposed action would also set aside more than four-fifths of the Nez Perce-Clearwater’s land area for uses other than timber production — a proportion the Idaho County Commission called “the beginning of the issue of producing economical sales” in its Nov. 12 comment letter.
How, when to reach desired conditions
Mainly, the proposal consists of a long list of objectives which set the timetable for “desired conditions” to be achieved according to specific standards and guidelines, all of which are spelled out in Chapter 2 of the 139-page proposal. These describe what planners would try to accomplish during the next 15 years, across a multitude of categories.
The proposal includes:
• Six objectives on “restoration” of 358,000 acres — through timber harvest, prescribed fire or wildfire — during a 10-year span.
• Five objectives on maintaining existing meadows and grasslands — one of which targets keeping up camas habitats at Musselshell Meadows and McComas Meadows.
• Three objectives on fire management calling for fuel reduction in municipal watersheds as well as fuel reduction inside and outside the buffer that sets wild country apart from populated areas.
• Nine objectives on aquatic ecosystems, which call for restoring floodplains, improving water quality, relocating facilities and decommissioning roads. This section also references a five-page appendix that would prioritize work among more than 50 creeks and river sections.
• Two objectives on wildlife, one of which calls for 25,000 acres of prescribed burning every five years in support of elk winter range. The other calls for development of 15,000 acres of winter habitat to “support the sustainability and distribution of snowshoe hare.”
• Six objectives on infrastructure, most of which concern decommissioning, constructing, relocating and maintaining roads.
• Two objectives on lands call for the forest to buy out inholdings and acquire new right-of-way.
• One objective apiece on soils, cultural resources, visitor information, mine reclamation and grazing.
• Two objectives on timber harvest, one of which calls for the forest to plan to sell 58-150 million board feet per year. The proposal does not include a specific timber sale program quantity, leaving that “to be determined through scoping and further analysis.”
Public comments: numerous, various and legally forceful
The Idaho County Commission’s comment highlighted Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recognition of the need to improve “the economic health of forest-dependent communities.” The commission went on to write that “the plan is tilted too heavily to aquatics, which appears to trump other resource areas. Just look at how broad the direction is for other areas and how specific and prescriptive the aquatics section is.”
The commission also raised points in favor of motorized recreation and greater cooperation between the county and Forest Service on fire management and weed control.
The Forest Service is legally obligated to consider all comments, but the county’s letter may carry more weight than the average comment among the thousands the Nez Perce-Clearwater has received in response to the proposal.
Among other governmental comments are letters from various state-level departments, which range in length from the simple one-pager out of Idaho Governor Butch Otter’s office to the 23-pager sent from the desk of Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) director Virgil Moore.
Complex concepts are sometimes boiled down to one page, as the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) exemplified by recommending specific additions to the standards and guidelines that accompany the proposed fire management and water quality objectives. Notably, DEQ would have the Nez Perce-Clearwater add a provision for the Forest Service “to initiate federal consultation” for recreational suction dredge mining permits “upon submission of an approvable mining plan of operations.”
IDFG would have the combined forests add several “desired conditions” including one that would bring restoration actions to bear specifically on boosting elk populations: “in areas identified by IDFG, vegetation management will restore early successional habitats.”
Idaho’s Parks and Recreation department (IDPR) supported allowing “snowmobile use and summer motorized single-track trails” in the recommend wilderness areas (RWAs) because, according to IDPR, these uses “do not detract from wilderness characteristics in RWAs to any significant degree.”
The Idaho Department of Agriculture also argued against putting more than two-thirds of the Nez Perce-Clearwater lands beyond the reach of motorized traffic. “Such a drastic reduction in motorized use threatens the economic sustainability of the forest for those that depend on natural resources for their livelihood,” deputy director Brian J. Gould wrote Nov. 10.
Among comments the forests received from federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a 22-pager. Two other federal agencies — NOAA Fisheries and the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Services — worked on the plan through a “consultation” role, in which they helped design the proposed action. The forests are obliged to protect the Nez Perce Tribe’s trust resources, and the tribe’s input also came by way of consultation rather than public comment.
The vast bulk of public comments have come from private interests and individuals. Some of the comments speak to national issues: for instance, Idaho Rivers United wrote one Nov. 13 asking for a single “Wild and Scenic River Management Plan” for the Lochsa, Clearwater and Selway rivers — in which the organization would have the Forest Service include “a study of and guidelines for super-size traffic (commonly called megaloads) and hazardous materials transport through the Wild and Scenic river corridor via U.S. Highway 12.”
Others would shape the future of public access to prime elk habitat. Conservation group Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) “encourages the Forest Service to manage vehicular traffic to minimize displacement of elk from public lands or over-harvest of elk on public lands, while still providing for recreational use,” in its Nov. 13 comment. “There must be close coordination between the forest plan and the travel management plan.”
The comments are public record; all of them can be located through the “reading room” online at: https://cara.ecos...
The full text of the proposed action is available for download at: http://www.fs.usd...
A comment by Margaret McVicker of Lewiston bears on ways individuals use the forest: “We want access to our forest lands, to enjoy our hunting, wood gathering, personal use mushrooming and nature viewing, etc., without being ‘herded’ into small special use areas where the impact damages the ecosystem through heavy use so it has to be artificially and needlessly regulated.”
Notable among comments listed in the “reading room” database: Dick Artley of Grangeville sent in three of the earliest; Bill Mulligan of Kamiah-based Blue North Forest Products is listed as having sent one of the latest, although his letter is actually dated to mid-November; various litigious environmentalist organizations including Friends of the Clearwater, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians also commented.
The oldest comment in the database may actually belong to the Idaho Conservation League, which resubmitted a 27-pager dated December 2004.