Hundreds of cottonwood trees are being cut along the St. Joe River.
The trees which inspired the name “The Shadowy St. Joe” are coming down because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says they weaken river dikes.
Benewah County officials have told anguished residents that they have no choice but to remove the trees. If they don’t, the corps has said, the county will not be eligible for disaster relief when another flood hits.
The flooding a year ago this month is very much on people’s minds. But for some people, the sight of big trees being turned into piles of logs on the riverbank is gut-wrenching.
“There seriously are trees that need removing,” said Gary Appel, a logger whose home was flooded a year ago. “But what they’re doing over there is a worse disaster than the flood.”
“Over there” is Meadowdale, which is adjacent to the Riverdale area where Gary and Linda Appel live. They watched Monday afternoon as loggers took virtually every cottonwood on the opposite shore.
Cutting also was under way along state Highway 3, but more trees were being left standing there.
“It’s not nearly as bad as I thought,” said Minnie Epler, who had been upset to the point of tears when she thought six miles of shoreline would be clearcut.
She was relieved after meeting Monday morning with county Commissioners Jack Buell and Bud McCall.
“I feel they’re doing the best they can to comply and still save as many trees as possible.”
Benewah County officials could not be reached for comment. The work, which is the responsibility of two local drainage districts, will be paid for with a federal economic development grant.
The dikes were built early in the century to hold back floodwaters. But their tops and slopes have become overgrown in many places, contrary to Corps requirements.
The Corps wrote to commissioners in January, insisting that the trees be cut. Engineers are concerned that, when the ground is saturated, trees will fall over and weaken the dike.
Biologists, who hate to see any cottonwoods cut, are skeptical of that theory.
“Actually, root structures help bind the soils together,” said Jim Alto of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If you’re going to cut the trees down and the roots die, that will loosen (the dike).”
The Corps agrees. Its dike maintenance guidelines state: “Trees that have been cut and removed from the levees should have their roots excavated and the cavity filled and compacted with impervious material.”
The county has no plans to remove the roots, according to administrators of the grant money.
Bob Newbill, the Corps’ national disaster manager, said his agency realizes the value of cottonwoods as wildlife habitat. But tall trees make the levies unsafe, he said.
However, trees didn’t play a role in the 1996 disaster, according to John Coyle, Corps’ flood engineer.
“I would have to say this time the weak link was the low spots,” he said. “Under different circumstances, if a lot of debris comes down and gets hung up in the big trees, they’ll pull out the dike.”
If there are places where all of the trees are being removed, Coyle added, “I suspect they’re going beyond what the Corps told them to do.”
That’s what Elaine Fry, a neighbor of the Appels’, saw on Monday along the Meadowhurst dike.
“We are sick, just sick,” said Fry. “They have several machines going, these great big gobbling machines.”
No one from the Corps is in St. Maries directing the tree removal.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department joined federal wildlife officials in objecting to the tree removal.
“In our experience, riparian vegetation promotes bank stability and helps to decrease velocity and erosion energy downstream,” agency officials wrote to Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho. “This evidence is supported by scientific literature.”
Kempthorne took an interest in the trees after hearing from worried St. Maries residents and Idaho Rivers United, a conservation group. He asked the Corps of Engineers last fall to take as few trees as possible.
State biologist Chip Corsi called cottonwoods a wonderful streamside species “because they do so many things. They create cover and shade and nesting areas and cavities for wood ducks … They’re a nurse tree for the cedars that come in underneath them.”
The loss of bald eagle nesting and roost sites is the biggest concern of Susan Weller of the Audubon Society. The veteran bird-watcher is amazed that there was no effort to identify trees used by the threatened species.
“I offered to identify them, but they didn’t take me up on the offer,” Weller said.
Linda and Gary Appel enjoy watching the eagles that roost in their cottonwoods.
Gary Appel, a former dike commissioner, said he’s been diligent about keeping vegetation off the top of the dike that crosses his land. But a number of trees grow at the bottom of the dike, beside the water.
He swears he’d chain himself to the biggest one to protect it from the tree-cutters.
“I won’t leave home until they’re done,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos Map showing where cottonwoods are being cut down
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