February 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Corps Asked For Scientific Roots Behind Cutting Of Cottonwoods No Deforestation With Justification, State Says Of St. Joe River Dikes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Idaho Department of Lands wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday, saying wholesale cutting of cottonwoods along the St. Joe River cannot continue without scientific justification.

Jim Colla, a state official who wrote the letter, visited the riverside dikes near St. Maries where cutting took place two weeks ago.

“Where homes are on the landward side of the levee, they basically took everything. There weren’t any trees left,” he said. “I don’t think they have any technical or scientific justification for that.

“We’ll see.”

Bob Newbill, national disaster manager for the corps, hasn’t had a chance to respond. But he said Tuesday that nothing has changed the corps’ contention that large trees on the sides and top of the levees pose a safety hazard because they can be pushed over during floods, pulling portions of the man-made dike along with them.

The trees must go, Newbill insisted.

“Our main emphasis is for the protection of life and property,” he said.

Newbill added: “I’m going to forward their request for scientific justification up the Corps of Engineers channels. But they won’t have a response by the third of March. That’s an impractical timeline.”

March 3, next Monday, is when cutting is expected to resume.

It was stopped temporarily by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist because migratory eagles that roost in the trees were being disturbed.

The cutting of the shadowy St. Joe’s signature trees has caused heartache for some people who love the river, and heartburn for biologists who say the trees provide habitat and actually hold the riverbanks together.

Previous cutting was done by Benewah County at the corps’ insistence. If the dikes aren’t cleared, the corps said, residents will get no federal assistance if last year’s disastrous flood is repeated.

“I don’t see them going ahead and mowing down the rest of the trees, because they don’t want to,” Colla said of the county. “They’re being directed to do this by fairly high up in the corps; the local people are just following orders. That still doesn’t make it right.”

The initial cutting violated the Idaho Forest Practices Act, said Colla, who enforces the law. That means it also violated the federal Clean Water Act, Colla said.

The state would have to grant a variance for the work to continue. Colla won’t grant that unless the corps can justify that total tree removal is needed to provide for stable levees.

Colla said some trees do need to be removed. “But very, very few of them.”

He suggested that the corps grant a waiver of its own rules in this case. He’d like to see trees marked individually for cutting, with representatives of all agencies agreeing on the need.

“We’d need to be invited by Benewah County to look at their project,” Newbill said of the idea.

No one from the corps has been personally involved in the cutting, which was supervised by drainage district commissioners.

Colla isn’t sure how he can enforce the Forest Practices Act in this case. Normally, the state deals with loggers who can be put out of business if they don’t follow the rules.

He said the corps would be crazy to keep insisting that the trees be cut, in the face of pressure from other agencies and the threat of an Audubon Society lawsuit.

Colla compared the situation to one faced by the Washington Department of Transportation in the Spokane Valley.

“They cut down the pine trees along I-90 that hid the junkyard, and after a public outcry they finally threw out their silly rules and stopped cutting the trees.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CORPS REPORT FORESAW TOLL ON HABITAT, PUBLIC IMAGE The Army Corps of Engineers predicted people would be upset about cutting cottonwoods along the St. Joe River. “Local perception of the river may be altered,” corps officials wrote in a September report to Benewah County. The corps was acting as consultant for the county’s dike improvement project - which is being done at the agency’s insistence. In its report, the corps wrote: “Habitat for migratory birds, mammals, fish and endangered species will be substantially reduced except in cases of vegetation growth on waterward benches and sloughs … “Threatened or endangered species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon that may transit the project area may be affected as a result of the proposed action through removal of potential perching and nesting habitat. Bull trout migrating through the project area may find reduced habitat.” The report writers also pointed out that water temperatures would rise and oxygen levels drop, also to the detriment of fish. The conclusion: “The proposed work is not considered a major federal action. However, the location, local perception and potential impact to the St. Joe River may combine to justify close environmental review.” No such review was done before the chain saws buzzed in February. That upsets June Berquist, an Idaho water quality compliance officer. She contends the National Environmental Policy Act was violated when no environmental impact study was done. The Benewah County project required an impact study for two reasons: It had significant environmental impact, and was accomplished with federal dollars (a grant from the Economic Development Administration). “That allows for public involvement and agency coordination,” Berquist said of the environmental impact statement process. “This is exactly why the policy exists, to keep federal dollars from being spent on something like this.” Julie Titone

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CORPS REPORT FORESAW TOLL ON HABITAT, PUBLIC IMAGE The Army Corps of Engineers predicted people would be upset about cutting cottonwoods along the St. Joe River. “Local perception of the river may be altered,” corps officials wrote in a September report to Benewah County. The corps was acting as consultant for the county’s dike improvement project - which is being done at the agency’s insistence. In its report, the corps wrote: “Habitat for migratory birds, mammals, fish and endangered species will be substantially reduced except in cases of vegetation growth on waterward benches and sloughs … “Threatened or endangered species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon that may transit the project area may be affected as a result of the proposed action through removal of potential perching and nesting habitat. Bull trout migrating through the project area may find reduced habitat.” The report writers also pointed out that water temperatures would rise and oxygen levels drop, also to the detriment of fish. The conclusion: “The proposed work is not considered a major federal action. However, the location, local perception and potential impact to the St. Joe River may combine to justify close environmental review.” No such review was done before the chain saws buzzed in February. That upsets June Berquist, an Idaho water quality compliance officer. She contends the National Environmental Policy Act was violated when no environmental impact study was done. The Benewah County project required an impact study for two reasons: It had significant environmental impact, and was accomplished with federal dollars (a grant from the Economic Development Administration). “That allows for public involvement and agency coordination,” Berquist said of the environmental impact statement process. “This is exactly why the policy exists, to keep federal dollars from being spent on something like this.” Julie Titone


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