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Community efforts address health of forests, rural communities

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

When it comes to forest management, controversies about forest fires, litigation, clearcuts, and agency gridlock often dominate the headlines. But behind the scenes, Idahoans are writing several success stories that don’t often make the news.

That’s a shame, because when the timber industry, conservationists and others work together, the results are good for Idaho.

For example, take the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho’s largest statewide conservation group, and Idaho Forest Group, the largest timber purchaser in the Northwest. These two organizations were often at odds during the so-called “timber wars.”

But times change. Changes in forest health, rural economies, climate, wildfire size and frequency, and declining Forest Service budgets meant neither timber sales nor restoration projects were happening. It seemed that the Forest Service was having a difficult time getting things done, and neither group could jumpstart things on their own.

Over the last decade, both the Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Forest Group realized we share many overlapping interests: overgrown forests in the roaded front country can benefit from logging, a healthy forest products industry can improve forest health, skilled workers can redesign road networks to improve watersheds and fisheries, and Idaho’s wilderness areas can provide value for wildlife and people. Our groups realized that by working together with additional partners, we could help the Forest Service be more successful.

In northern Idaho, the Panhandle Forest Collaborative found success in the Bottom Canyon Project. Conservationists, timber industry representatives, sportsmen, and recreationists worked together to help design the project. Cutting-edge timber harvest prescriptions were used to improve forest health while minimizing environmental impacts. Old roads that were no longer needed for access or management were removed or repaired to alleviate erosion and improve water quality. Recreation trails were improved or maintained. Old-growth stands were identified and protected for wildlife benefit.

Instead of arguing over every timber project or wilderness proposal, advocates from these typically opposing sides got together in the forest planning stage and agreed in advance on which areas were most appropriate for these uses. In the roaded front country, conservationists agreed to help craft more ecologically minded timber sales. Timber sales tripled in the last few years. Likewise, timber industry representatives are supporting Senator Jim Risch’s proposal to designate the Scotchman Peaks as wilderness.

The Payette Forest Coalition is a similar collaborative in southwestern Idaho. This group helped design the 40,000-acre Middle Fork Weiser River Landscape Restoration Project to remove trees prone to forest fires, among other goals. Collaborative members reached out to other folks in the environmental community and forest products industry who had expressed concerns about the project. The Forest Service worked with these parties to address concerns. Now, this important project can proceed without concerns about litigation. The previous two projects developed by the Forest Service in partnership with the Payette Forest Coalition totaled 130,000 acres and improved habitat for threatened fish species, while allowing a local sawmill to add an extra shift. The group will also take a look at recommended wilderness boundaries on the Payette and see if they can be improved.

The Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Forest Group are also working collaboratively in the Kootenai Valley and Clearwater Basin.

While these projects are a good start, far more work is needed. The Forest Service still lacks the resources it needs to properly manage resources, fight fire, and repair scars on the land. But working like neighbors, we believe these challenges can be overcome.

We may not agree on everything, but we agree on enough to get good things done.

John Robison is the Public Lands Director of the Idaho Conservation League and is based in Boise and Mac Lefebvre is a Procurement Forester with Idaho Forest Group based in Grangeville.


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