The cutting of cottonwoods along the St. Joe River is in violation of the Idaho Forest Practices Act, a state forester said Thursday.
Jim Colla of the Idaho Department of Lands said Benewah County did not apply for a necessary permit and has been using heavy equipment illegally within a stream protection zone.
The county is cutting the trees at the insistence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Corps officials say the cottonwoods must be cleared from the slopes of dikes as a flood-prevention measure.
Cutting began Saturday. Colla has been out of town and was unaware of the activity until he read about it in the newspaper and concerned residents called.
The Forest Practices Act applies to any commercial logging activity. The logs are being sold for pulp. But the Clarkston, Wash., company that is buying them has been told not to make payment, Colla said, because they have been harvested illegally.
Stream protection is one of the main reasons for the Forest Practices Act. The cottonwood project would require a variance, Colla said.
“We have requirements to maintain at least 75 percent of the pre-harvest shade over the stream and a certain number of larger trees for bank stability and fish habitat,” Colla said.
A letter was hand-delivered to county Commissioner Jack Buell on Thursday, Colla said. Buell told field forester Jim Nichols that he thought someone else was taking care of the permit and that he would apply for it today.
Buell will meet with state foresters Tuesday to inspect the riverside work, Colla said.
Joe Epler, the Meadowhurst Drainage District commissioner who has overseen the cutting, said he was not aware that any state permits were needed.
Most of the trees growing on the slopes of the St. Maries area dikes already had been cut by Wednesday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily stopped the work.
Bald eagles use the cottonwoods to roost, and the agency said no more cutting could be done until March 1, when the migratory birds will have moved on from the St. Joe.
The eagles are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Audubon Council is threatening to sue everyone involved to prevent further cutting along the scenic waterway.
The environmental group sent letters Thursday alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The council also contends the National Environmental Policy Act was ignored because no environmental assessment was done before cutting began.
County officials felt pressured to do the work because they had been told by the Corps of Engineers that if they didn’t, the county would not receive assistance if last year’s disastrous floods are repeated.
“It was not well-considered, not well-thought-out,” council President Susan Weller said of the cutting. “I don’t think the people of St. Maries want the trees cut. I think they’re being held hostage by the federal government.”
The council’s letters serve as the 60-day notice of intent to sue required by federal law.
They were sent by Coeur d’Alene attorney Scott Reed to the Corps of Engineers, Benewah County commissioners, Two Rivers Logging Co., the Panhandle Area Council, the Economic Development Administration and the Meadowhurst and Riverdale drainage districts.
Corps officials had not seen the letter Thursday but said it was the responsibility of Benewah County to comply with all environmental laws.
Mike Scuderi of the corps’ environmental resources section said county officials would be made aware of the pertinent federal laws when they apply for state permits.
Epler, the Meadowhurst drainage commissioner, said he expected the engineering firm hired by the county to oversee would take care of any necessary permits.
Larry Comer, of the engineering firm Welch and Comer, said earlier this week that his firm was not involved in the tree-clearing.