In the midst of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests’ forest plan revision process, the Idaho County Commission is asking the Forest Service to go all the way through a process that would narrow down the list of rivers that could eventually get Wild and Scenic protection. It’s known as a “suitability evaluation,” and it’s a step the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires the Forest Service to complete – whether during the forest plan revision or not.
And the Nez Perce-Clearwater forest supervisor Cheryl Probert is inclined to follow through.
“One of the reasons we’re very interested in doing the suitability evaluation in the forest planning process is because we can have the forward-looking discussions where we look at the tradeoffs and look at the best ways to preserve the values we’ve identified,” Probert told the Free Press during an interview last week. “Maybe it’s the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, maybe it’s not. But if we don’t go all the way to making a determination during the plan revision, we don’t have the opportunity to have those really good discussions with the public and with the other stakeholders and government agencies, the Nez Perce Tribe and all the others who have an interest.”
But why does the county want to see this process completed?
The combined forests have 1,500 named streams. Among the 1,500 are 89 totaling nearly 900 river miles that Forest Service planners now say may be some of “the best of the best” candidates for Wild and Scenic protection. More than 600 of those 900 river miles are in wilderness or roadless areas. The Forest Service is working to set up an online map that shows them all. (The website was not available in time for the Free Press to review its functions for this article.)
Forest Service planners told the Free Press last Friday the website will allow those interested to browse through all the streams and provide comments about specific segments the planners say they will use to help determine which streams may be suitable for Wild and Scenic protection – and which ones aren’t.
In a July 25 letter to Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert, the Idaho County commissioners cited potential for Wild and Scenic River eligibility to impact highway transportation, timber salvage, livestock grazing and restrictions on outfitters and guides across Idaho County.
“We are concerned that the protection of these eligible river segments may be more restrictive than rivers actually designated as Wild and Scenic,” the commissioners wrote. “When the adjacency provision of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is applied, these approximately 100 river segments could adversely affect the majority of the National Forest land in Idaho County. For these reasons we believe that it is important that the forest completes the suitability evaluation during the current forest planning process. We believe the suitability process would eliminate most of these rivers, thus eliminating unnecessary and burdensome regulations on the land.”
The Clearwater Basin Collaborative is also moving to support completing the suitability process during the forest plan revision, according to CBC participant Idaho Conservation League. ICL’s north Idaho director, Brad Smith, told the Free Press why ICL believes completing the suitability process would be appropriate.
“Eligibility is based on whether a particular river segment has one or more outstandingly remarkable values,” Smith explained during an interview last week. “This would be like the South Fork Clearwater, which has really important B-run steelhead production. … If they go further, they determine which of those eligible ones are suitable for designation under the act. The suitability process is where they can weigh the tradeoffs, and they would presumably narrow down the list by going through suitability.”
“I think it’s really important to remember the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was intended to protect our free-flowing rivers from dams and diversions,” Smith added. “I think there is room to accomplish those goals while ensuring forest management can still take place on adjacent lands.”
The Free Press interviewed Forest Service planners Norma Staaf and Zach Peterson last Friday, July 28. Both are members of the “interdisciplinary team” at the core of the Forest Plan revision effort. Staaf (who writes the paper’s Clearwater Valley news column) explained the criteria involved with how the team identified some river segments as outstanding among the combined forests’ 1,500 named streams. Staaf explained that the 89 river segments considered for additional protection are ones with “outstandingly remarkable” recreation, wildlife, fisheries, geology, scenery, botany or cultural resources.
Peterson noted the Clearwater County commissioners have also asked the Forest Service to complete the suitability process.
The website that they said will list the 89 river segments as well as the 1,500 streams, which was not publicly accessible and was protected by a login page at press time Tuesday morning, can be found at https://usfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=88d41b083eb640f6a329c673d2b83188. The Free Press will report on the contents of the website when it becomes available.