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Rains Devastate N. Idaho Forests And Watersheds Officials Blame Clearcuts, Roads In Wrong Places For Most Of Damage

The casualty list runs from Sandpoint to Lolo, Mont., and the roster is far from complete.

Early estimates suggest triage will cost taxpayers millions.

It’s the worst damage to North Idaho’s forests most experts have ever seen: Roads overloaded with water from recent storms fell off mountainsides; walls of mud and debris tore up logged and unlogged watersheds.

In Clearwater National Forest, federal officials frankly admit the devastation was aggravated by too many clearcuts and roads built in the wrong places.

At least 28 roads are closed due to more than 100 slides, slumps and washouts. Some of the roads probably won’t reopen next summer, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests to the north reports extensive damage to 200 miles of roads in the Bonner’s Ferry District alone.

The havoc raised by mudslides is worst in the St. Maries and Avery Ranger Districts - cutting off the road between Avery and Wallace and blocking other byways.

The forests appear to qualify for emergency repair money from the Federal Highway Administration.

“This is not a good picture,” said Art Bourassa, district ranger on the North Fork of the Clearwater National Forest, as he pointed to a slide.

“I wish we didn’t have a road up there,” he added, pointing to a new road in a recently logged area 20 miles east of Dworshak Reservoir.

The rainstorms turned the road into an avalanche that charged through a clearcut and took out a piece of another logging road below it. The debris tumbled into the North Fork of the Clearwater River.

Not far away, raging Isabella Creek punched out a 100-yard-long, 10-foot deep curve on an older road, clear down to bedrock. It is the only road to the popular Mallard-Larkins Pionpeer Area.

It definitely will be rebuilt, officials said, starting with a rock barrier to shield the next road from the creek.

Hardest hit was Quartz Creek Road, buried under a massive slide 600 feet wide and 60 feet deep.

It blocks the easiest access to an active timber sale.

But removal of the dirt and debris, and repair of the road, will cost an estimated $1 million.

Many of the slides and washouts happened on steep slopes with unstable soil. They involve roads built four to 40 years ago.

This is a grand-slam education on how not to manage forests today, officials said.

“Everything up to four to five years ago was heavily clearcut,” Bourassa said. “That probably isn’t sitting with what Mother Nature planned.”

As for roads, “some shouldn’t have been built, based on location, drainage and stability,” he said.

In areas like Skull Creek and Quartz Creek, “there were too many roads, too close together.”

That management won’t be repeated, he said.

The Forest Service knew long before Bourassa arrived here six years ago that several of those roads were risky because the soil is so unstable. “But if we didn’t build in medium- to high-risk areas, we wouldn’t have a road down the North Fork corridor,” a major timber-hauling route, Bourassa said.

Those risks are never figured into the cost of a timber sale, but they are risks taxpayers will now pay for, environmentalists said.

Former Forest Service employees contend the current devastation is also partly a result of logging the same watershed year after year, instead of giving it time to heal.

Without those trees, there is nothing to drink up rainwater and prevent erosion, said Al Espinosa, who was chief fisheries biologist on the Clearwater for 20 years.

For example, there are no roads above the Quartz Creek slide.

Yet this watershed has sustained 200 million board-feet of logging since 1965, much of it done in the name of salvaging white pine.

In 1979, the most valuable white pine was taken from the north slope by helicopter, leaving primarily dead and dying trees on the slope that slipped away last month.

It was salvage logging, advertised then as now as essential to get the trees while they are still valuable.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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