What does the silver-haired bat eat and where does it sleep? How fast are noxious weeds spreading? Where does the wind blow the hardest?
Do most people even care?
They should, if they live in the Inland Northwest.
The Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, the most massive study of its kind ever undertaken anywhere, will include reams of seemingly trivial details.
But when taken as a body of work next year, the study will guide how the federal government manages half the 145 million acres in the interior Columbia River Basin - home to 3 million people.
The project was unveiled Thursday in Coeur d’Alene before about 100 people associated with politics, environmental activism and natural resource-based industries.
Public lands management will never be the same, they were told.
Congress will ultimately dictate whether the landscape needs a lighter touch, can sustain heavier logging and grazing, or can produce commodities at the current rate.
But whatever lawmakers decide, they will know like never before the full consequences of their actions.
“The simple choices have already been made,” said U.S. Forest Service scientist Tom Quigley. “What is left now for us to decide is the complex.”
After tackling the spotted owl dilemma in the Pacific Northwest, the Clinton administration in January 1994 chartered three “Eastside” teams.
Several dozen Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management researchers are headquartered in Walla Walla and Boise. Hundreds more support personnel are holed up in small, makeshift work stations across four states.
They are studying everything from mushrooms to projected population increases to median income to learn how they all interact.
Quigley heads the science team that by September will assess the region’s landscape, where it’s been and where it’s headed.
Teams divided by the upper and lower reaches of the interior Columbia River will use the scientific findings next year to craft a wide assortment of management alternatives, along with the benefits and downsides of each.
The all-day Coeur d’Alene meeting was devoid of the verbal bombthrowing that has long characterized the debate over the region’s public lands.
“The polarized sides of the forest debate are never going to get together,” said retired miner Earl Frizzell, 67, of Coeur d’Alene. “People have to look for the center.”
Most of the 50 Eastside Ecosystem Management Project meetings, held primarily in Walla Walla, have been genteel, project spokeswoman Patty Burel said.
But a couple of meetings got dicey over private property rights.
One of the project’s misconceptions is that Uncle Sam is trying to put its nose where it doesn’t belong - in a retiree’s five-acre wood lot or a rancher’s back 40.
“We have no desire, intent or authority to make decisions outside Forest Service and BLM boundaries,” Project Manager Jeff Blackwood said.
What the researchers will do is tell the region how past management practices have affected the landscape and what are the alternatives for future practices.
Taxpayers also will learn if they live in areas prone to catastrophic wildfires fueled by high winds, if noxious weeds are overrunning their beargrass, and if the silver-haired bat, through its diet, is controlling the insect population.