Public land decisions run into roadblocks

Wilderness boundaries are a mere fraction of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest draft management plan – and the headaches associated with getting it approved.

Ten years in the making, the draft forest plan and environmental impact statement was released Jan. 3 by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Halfway through the comment period that ends April 5, groups and agencies are still trying to get a handle on all the ramifications of the sprawling set of documents, maps and alternatives.

Forest Service supervisors and key staffers have transferred or retired in this prolonged period.

Yet the draft plan attempts to address a wide range of complex multiple-use demands across the St. Joe, Coeur d’Alene and Kaniksu national forests totaling about 2.5 million acres.

Categories in the plan include supplying clean water, restoring and maintaining ecosystems, timber harvest, fire control, wildlife and providing a diversity of recreation.

Science is designated as a major guideline for all decisions.

But political and legal factors also play a role, often disrupting.

The IPNF management plan has been pulled back or put on hold several times in seven years by national-level changes and challenges to Forest Service rule-making policies.

“A lot of the delays are based on factors beyond the local Forest Service control,” said John Finney Jr., a North Idaho lawyer affiliated with the Sandpoint Winter Riders snowmobile club. “The delays that make this frustrating are from political maneuvering or the courts. Just about every land management decision nowadays is being challenged in court.”

To reduce the stalemates, the Forest Service is trying to get more decisions made by collaborative agreements hammered out by disparate groups.

“I’m participating in one now and hopeful it will yield results,” he said.

But even if snowmobilers work out recreational access issues with the Forest Service and other recreation groups, they still might have to work through layers of other authorities.

“If we get agreement with the Forest Service, we might be stalled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Finney said. “Endangered species seems to be the most common hang-up, whether it’s grizzly bears, lynx, caribou or, the latest one, wolverines.”

Cornel Rasor, Bonner County Commission chairman, said he will focus on the IPNF forest plan recommendations for the Selkirk Mountains after the board deals with federal caribou habitat proposals for much of the same area.

“Caribou habitat is taking all of our attention right now,” he said. “But we’ll look at the forest plan in a meaningful way before the deadline.”

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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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