A “wild and scenic” section of the St. Joe River is being threatened by the need to repair the demolished mountain road above it.
Since February, the St. Joe River Road has been closed by a landslide 13 miles east of Avery, Idaho, that buried the paved two-lane route in a 300-foot-wide swath of mud, rocks, trees and stumps.
The closure has hurt business in tiny Avery and cost Plum Creek Timber Co. thousands of dollars as its logging trucks are forced on long detours around the slide.
This fall, Shoshone County is planning to dump 55,000 cubic yards of fill material on the flood plain below the slide so a roadway can be routed around the debris.
The fill - mostly large rocks - will take up half an acre on the flood plain, part of which is a wetland most of the year.
While the fill material will support the mountainside and new roadway, wildlife biologists are worried that it will harm the river, which is considered one of the last strongholds for bull trout in North Idaho and is a world-class fishery for cutthroat trout.
“Moving the road toward the river cannot be considered a solution if protecting fish and wildlife values in the St. Joe is going to remain a high priority,” Greg Tourtlotte, regional supervisor for the Fish and Game Department, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service is one of several agencies that have to sign off on the project.
“None of us feel good about doing it, but it’s necessary,” said Brad Burmark, assistant ranger for the St. Joe ranger district, who was preparing Wednesday to sign documents approving the plans.
If something isn’t done this fall to bolster the slope, another slide could send more debris down the mountain this winter or
spring, he said. The fill material will help hold up the mountainside, engineers believe.
“It’s a very difficult situation, because it’s so unstable,” Burmark said.
Adding to the instability is the fact that the slide started at the ridgetop, which is the location of a seismic fault line, said Mike Mongelli, assistant director of public works for Shoshone County.
“We want to get it open to traffic,” Mongelli said. “The stabilization of the slide is going to take further engineering.”
Pressure to open the road has come from both Avery businesses and Plum Creek Timber Co., all of whom are frustrated with the slow pace of repairs.
“It’s affected business tremendously,” said Kathy Herrell, an Avery resident who helps out at the Avery Trading Post.
“One of the (Shoshone County) commissioners was in today and and said they were going to start on it soon,” she said. “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
Avery won’t be quite as isolated when the county finishes repairs on the Moon Pass road from Wallace, which is expected to be open this weekend.
Plum Creek officials were in contact with county and federal officials as soon as the St. Joe River Road was closed.
“It’s been a great inconvenience,” said John Quigley, Plum Creek’s supervisor of timber lands in St. Maries. “It’s added about three to four hours of time to some of our hauls.”
Although another forest road was improved as a detour around the slide, it adds an hour to the trip and is closed to logging trucks because it’s too dangerous.
Forest Service personnel have found creative ways around the slide. One method involved leaving one vehicle on the east side of the slide for several days. Then, they would drive to the slide, climb over it, and continue the commute in the second car.
The St. Joe River is designated a national Wild and Scenic River from Avery upstream to St. Joe Lake.
Included in the legislation that gave the river protected status was language that placed a high value on keeping the road next to it open, said Dennis Griffith, a Forest Service planner involved in the project.
One option that the Forest Service considered was leaving the road closed.
Because of the law, “we can’t do that,” Griffith said. The other options were either too expensive or would encroach even more on the river than the one currently favored, he said.
The county still needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to place fill material on the wetlands.
The repairs may bury some wetlands, but should not intrude on the normal river channel. However, Fish and Game officials and other critics fear the narrowed channel will cause bank erosion and exacerbate flooding problems downstream.
As fish biologist Chip Corsi put it, “This is one river that just shouldn’t be dinked around with like that.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area.