U.S. Forest Service
The Forest Service included this photo with its Johnson Bar Fire Salvage project decision. It portrays conditions the fire left behind in an area where the Forest Service had been developing projects to "improve the species, structural and age class diversity of forested ecosystems" even before the fire burned.
As of Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United are suing the Forest Service over federal salvage logging near Lowell, in the area scorched by the Johnson Bar Fire nearly two years ago, and the Idaho County Commission is chiming in.
The federal district court recently ruled in the environmentalists’ favor on a separate lawsuit by IRU, which temporarily held up the state’s plans to log ground held by the Idaho Department of Lands. (See the related story.)
The Forest Service has already advertised and sold two Johnson Bar Salvage sales, and delaying them would put Idaho County’s economic interests at risk, the commission declared last month. At its March 29 meeting, the county voted unanimously to file a declaration in federal court, in which the board wrote that delaying the timber sales “would cause significant and irreparable harm to the timber resource,” which has been decaying in the field since the 2014 fire.
“Any further delay will compromise the quality of the available wood and result in economic losses to the local communities,” the county declared. “A delay resulting in the loss of another field season will significantly increase the cost of reforestation and other restoration activities and potentially result in the abandonment of the project if timber deteriorates to the point where it is not economically viable to commercially harvest.”
Lowell residents evacuated when that fire threatened the Selway River community during August 2014. The blaze burned in an area where the Clearwater Basin Collaborative has supported timber cuts and other restoration work.
The commission named four companies the salvage sales could benefit: Idaho Forest Group, Empire Lumber, Tri-Pro Forest Products and Blue North Forest Products, “all local companies, [which] would be likely bidders on these sales.”
While the county contends the issue is time-sensitive because of the fire, the CBC has envisioned timber cuts supporting other restoration work in the 1.4 million-acre Selway-Middle Fork Collaborative Restoration Area since it was formed. In November 2014, Moose Creek District Ranger Joe Hudson told the Free Press the timing of the Johnson Bar Fire was extremely unfortunate in that it touched two prospective restoration projects that were deep into the planning process.
The county’s March 29 declaration stated that restoration plans would likely take the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests “up to a decade, or more, if ever, to accomplish…using appropriated funds, whereas presently the estimated receipts from the Johnson Bar Salvage timber sales could fund these activities while also supporting the economic well-being of the surrounding communities.”
When Friends of the Clearwater announced the lawsuit, that group said the Forest Service’s plan would log “34 million board feet of timber from 2,104 acres within the watershed of the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater Wild and Scenic Rivers.”
In their recent complaint, Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United told the court they may ask for “injunctive relief” similar to what IRU requested and received when the Idaho Department of Lands moved to salvage timber from a parcel of Selway-area state land last year.
On March 23, IDL noted that it completed its salvage last summer, opting for helicopter logging at greater expense than the state originally planned. The state salvaged 167 acres and could have trucked out the logs more cheaply by road if not for an injunction Judge Lynn Winmill granted, temporarily, to stop use of a road.
The Forest Service’s decision calls for most of its salvage logging to be done with skyline (1,450 acres) and helicopter (867) techniques, with less than five percent to be done by tractor (100 acres), so as to “reduce potential sediment inputs into the aquatic ecosystem…using logging systems with minimal impacts.”
Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert’s decision, dated February 2016, evaluated four alternatives including “no action” and ruled out four suggestions made by those who commented on the project. Probert’s alternative will accomplish not only the logging, but also the maintenance of 58 miles of haul roads, the reconstruction of 17 miles of haul roads, the use of 68 miles of existing haul roads, and the use of 10 helicopter landing sites (seven existing, three new).
Probert’s planning team noted that while “some commenters expressed concerns that the scope of the project was too small,” the team found “additional opportunities” would have involved harvesting in areas too prone to landslide, too “ecologically sensitive,” too burned or too inaccessible to generate much economic return.
That left an area even smaller than the county anticipated in a November 2014 letter to Hudson, in which the county raised the possibility that “limiting the project to only 30 percent of the affected area only limits the potential for salvaging valuable products in a timely manner.”
In that letter, the commission also wrote “we would hope that many of the unburned units that were proposed for treatment in the [collaborative] proposals would be moved forward quickly.”