More trees could be cut in our national forests, but they’d be the smaller, less valuable ones.
That’s part of the vision outlined Wednesday by federal officials for managing all of the federal lands in the Columbia River basin - 72 million acres in seven states.
It’s a vision that focuses aggressively on thinning forests, controlled burning, and other active measures to restore forests that scientists warn are on the brink of disastrous fires.
But conservationists, including the Idaho Conservation League’s John McCarthy, say the plan goes too far in allowing “chain saws and bulldozers to supposedly fix the forests.”
McCarthy said the plan, a “preferred alternative” identified Wednesday as part of the giant Columbia River basin environmental impact statement, focuses too much on “technological fixes,” instead of setting aside roadless areas for protection.
Timber industry officials were cautious about Wednesday’s announcement, although they’ve supported the active management approach.
“We were concerned, and still are concerned, that some of the information has been swayed a bit by the political waves coming from the (Clinton) administration,” said Mike Sullivan of Potlatch Corp.
“People have a lot of concern, particularly when you’re looking at an area this large,” said Dale Bosworth, regional forester for the intermountain region of the Forest Service and a member of the EIS project’s executive committee. “This is 25 percent of the national forest lands in the country, and 10 percent of the Bureau of Land Management lands in the country. So people are very concerned about how this is going to go.”
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, tried to cut off funding for the project when it was in the midst of three years of scientific studies. He backed off after being assured the project wouldn’t affect private property.
About 300 scientists and technical specialists worked on extensive studies of the health of the public lands in the Columbia River basin, an area the size of France. Now their work is being put into strategies to guide land management.
“What we’re trying to do is create a coordinated approach,” said Larry Hamilton, BLM director for Montana and the Dakotas.
Current land management approaches sometimes stop at an artificial line like a forest boundary, the officials said, without taking into account what’s happening in the next forest over.
The EIS envisions an ecosystem approach to land management, which would involve analysis of both local and watershed-wide issues, prescriptive standards for areas like certain types of streams or steep slopes, and collaboration with interested parties, from local governments to neighbors.
The current draft EIS outlined seven alternative approaches, with the first two reflecting what’s happening now and the seventh focusing on setting aside large nature preserves.
The approach announced Wednesday, Alternative 4, is the most aggressive as far as restoration. It also says restoration efforts should be designed “to produce economic benefits whenever practical.”
Two other alternatives called for more logging, but none contemplated as much thinning and burning.
“It’s an aggressive approach at attempting to manage the risks,” said Tom Quigley, head of the scientific team. Those risks include everything from the forests burning up to fish species like salmon and bull trout becoming extinct, he said.
Bill Shake, assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said, “We believe that Alternative 4 is good medicine for a sick ecosystem. We know that healthy ecosystems have healthy populations of fish and wildlife, and clean air and water.”
Problems in all of those areas were identified in the scientists’ studies.
Bosworth said the recommended alternative would mean more logging in the forests of North Idaho and Eastern Washington that has been done in the past few years, although logging would not reach the levels of 15 years ago.
But he said there would be “a significant change in the kinds of products that would be taken.”
Smaller-diameter trees would be harvested. Then, fire could be used to clear out remaining undergrowth and allow larger trees to thrive. That can’t be done now because the smaller trees act as a fuel ladder, increasing a fire’s intensity and allowing it to destroy the larger trees, too.
Copies of the draft EIS and an accompanying summary will be available to the public in mid-May. Public comment on the proposal will be accepted for the next four months. Then, the plan will be revised, with the final version due out next year.
Once it’s final, the EIS will be used to update 74 land-use plans across the region.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Fire danger
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PUBLIC COMMENT The Columbia River basin EIS project wants comments on its plan, which will be available to the public in mid-May. For a copy of the plan or its summary, call (208) 334-1770, ext. 128, or (509) 522-4030, or write to 304 N. Eighth, Boise 83702, or 112 E. Poplar, Walla Walla 99362. Public comments will be accepted for the next four months.
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