A new Forest Service project is sure to raise some eyebrows.
While the types of repairs and maintenance described in project documents are usually done with little fanfare, on Dec. 2, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests announced plans for post-fire repair work through the channels the agency normally uses for projects that are large – or that could prove controversial.
Federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to follow a “scoping process” during their planning, with few exceptions.
Cue the eyebrows: While the Forest Service wants to start work in January and continue through next summer, according to project documents, “although this project is being planned under categorical exclusions reserved for maintenance, which do not require scoping, because of the scale of this project, the Forest Supervisor has chosen to conduct a formal scoping period.”
When scoping has proven controversial in the past, it has usually taken the combined forests two to three years to finish planning.
The work would mainly consist of maintenance and “reducing the hazard from fire-damaged trees” along roads, at work sites and at developed recreation sites – work that federal regulations normally exclude from further analysis. But here’s how the key regulation is worded: “A proposed action may be categorically excluded from further analysis and documentation…only if there are no extraordinary circumstances related to the proposed action.”
Project documents note the 2015 burning season was “exceptionally severe, not for total acres burned, but because of the compressed time frames and location of the burned areas.” The summer saw 300 blazes scorch 184,000 acres within the local forests; fire burned more than 238 miles of roads, 174 miles of trails and 25 facilities.
The work is designated for nine areas struck by those fires, including areas east and northeast of Kamiah (Motorway Complex fires), north of Powell (Jay Point), east of Harpster (Baldy), southeast of Lowell (Slide/Wash), south and southwest of Elk City (Deadwood and Noble), and northeast of Riggins (Tepee Springs).
Maps and other project documents are available online at http://idahocountyfreepress.com/documents, or through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests’ projects page, http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/nezperceclearwater/landmanagement/projects.
Comments are being accepted through Dec. 28 by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact forest planner Zach Peterson at 935-4239.
Except in the quantity required in the wake of the fires, the proposed work is ordinary as it gets. Planned maintenance would include:
• Drainage maintenance – cleaning and maintaining culverts, drainage dips, open tops, rubber water diverters, ditches, and riprap needs.
• Blading – surface blading performed to keep the roadbed in a condition to allow traffic and provide drainage, including removal of potholes, ruts, and washboards, correcting improper templates, restoring proper surface drainage, repairing minor cracks, and removing minor slumps.
• Slides and road repairs – removal of minor slide material from the roadway (less than 10 cubic yards), restoration of travel way, and repairing rutting issues and washboards.
• Rock and stump removal – removal of stumps and rocks that roll into the roadway.
• Signs and access control maintenance– sign, route marker, and mile post markers installation and maintenance; gate installation and repair; and earth and concrete barrier installation, maintenance and repair.
• Brush cutting – removal of brush, trees and shrubs within the roadway clearing limits. Material would be cut near flush to the ground by hand and within 8 inches with a mechanical brusher.
• Trail maintenance- restoring damaged trail tread, removing fallen logs and rocks from trails and brushing to ensure safe, travelable trail condition.
• Administrative and recreation site maintenance- maintenance and replacement of infrastructure damaged as a result of fire. Any of the above listed maintenance actions would be utilized as necessary in administrative sites and recreation sites.
Hazard tree mitigation would include tree felling, timber removal and fuel reduction.
Environmental groups contacted by the Free Press are reviewing the project, and will be submitting comments.
(Editor’s note: The Free Press requested comment from the Forest Service on this story, which will be updated online with their response. — A.O.)