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Troubled waters

Coeur d'Alene River Ranger District hydrologist Rob Davies describes the changes to Yellow Dog Creek watershed near the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River during a recent visit. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Coeur d'Alene River Ranger District hydrologist Rob Davies describes the changes to Yellow Dog Creek watershed near the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River during a recent visit. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

YELLOW DOG CREEK, Idaho – Logging trucks once rumbled up this narrow creek valley 30 miles northeast of Coeur d’Alene.

Today, there’s not even a trace of road left. The biggest creatures now roaming the banks of Yellow Dog Creek are the pair of moose that have recently taken up residence in the quiet valley.

Only a well-trained eye would notice the signs of the recent $400,000 restoration project just completed here: the flecks of surveyor’s tape, the hidden cables anchoring massive logs to bedrock along the stream, the faint tracks from the heavy machinery that removed the dirt logging road.

District Ranger Randy Swick hiked up the valley on a crisp September morning, showing off the stream as if it were a once-troubled kid who just earned a spot on the honor roll. It’s a small but important part of the U.S. Forest Service’s long-term plan to fix hundreds of square miles of damaged watersheds in the region, he said.

“It took time to create the impact. It will take time to heal the impact,” Swick said.

A few months back, Yellow Dog Creek was not much more than a channelized spillway running along the old logging road. When the creek surged with snowmelt or rain, the water would chew away at the road, sending torrents of mud downstream into the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. Today, the creek meanders, curves and gurgles over rocks and logs. Instead of a road, there’s a floodplain along its bank, giving the stream more room to accommodate and dampen the power of floodwater, Swick said.

That same morning, Swick also walked along nearby Tepee Creek, another heavily damaged stream the Forest Service recently nursed back to health. The $500,000 project focused on a 1.2-mile stretch near the old Magee Ranger Station. Not long ago, that section of the creek was wide and shallow with only two pools. Now there are 17 pools, and the creek is loaded with curves and water-slowing logs. Beavers have returned to the meadows along the creek, creating new wetlands. Cutthroat trout big as a logger’s forearm have also returned to this section of the creek, even on the hottest days of August.

“I don’t see a trashed watershed here,” Swick said, surveying the meandering curves of Tepee Creek. He was referring to criticism levied against the federal agency in recent weeks by the Sierra Club. The environmental group claims the agency isn’t doing nearly enough to address lingering environmental problems in the Coeur d’Alene River watershed.

One of the loudest critics has been Spokane physician John Osborn, a Sierra Club member and founder of The Lands Council. The Forest Service is in the midst of creating a new plan for managing the 2.5 million acres of national forest in North Idaho. Osborn accuses the agency of ignoring how its actions – including continued plans to conduct large-scale timber harvests in the region – continue to be responsible for what he describes as “toxic floods.”

A long history of forest clearcuts and thousands of miles of logging roads in the North Fork watershed have resulted in damage to many of the streams and creeks in the region, Osborn said. “These floods that we get are occurring with increasing frequency and severity because of the damage,” he said. “Every time those watersheds flood, they move heavy metals into (Lake Coeur d’Alene) and the Spokane River.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of a $359 million, 30-year plan to clean up a century’s worth of hazardous mine waste in the Silver Valley. Much of the work entails removing contaminated soil and burying mine tailings.

But Osburn worries some of this work could be flushed away unless the Forest Service does more to prevent floods in rivers that flow into the valley.

The low-elevation forest is already prone to flooding thanks to a rare weather phenomenon in which rain falls on snow. Without a forest canopy to dampen the energy from this rain, the snow can rapidly melt, producing massive amounts of floodwater. One such flood in the winter of 1996 caused upward of 1.4 million pounds of lead to flow into Lake Coeur d’Alene on a single day, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey. Lead is deadly to both wildlife and humans. Federal scientists estimate there already are 100 million tons of toxic sediment from Silver Valley mines resting on the bottom of the lake.

When these floods occur, they threaten to recontaminate areas that were cleaned recently, Osborn said. This concern was echoed last year in a report on the cleanup issued by the National Academies of Science, which said recontamination caused by flooding in the Coeur d’Alene River watershed is a “major concern.” The 363-page report urged the federal government to consider how land management practices upstream from the contamination affects flooding. “It is important to include these practices in schemes designed to protect human and ecosystem health,” the report said.

Osborn said there should be a moratorium on logging in the drainage of the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. He also said the Forest Service needs to work more closely with the EPA to make sure its practices in the backcountry don’t harm humans downstream or undo expensive cleanup work.

“What we have are the two federal agencies each producing plans, and the plans don’t connect to each other,” Osborn said.

Forest Service officials say he is wrong. Jeff Johnson, a geologist for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, sits on the technical review committee for the commission responsible for the Coeur d’Alene Basin cleanup. Johnson said he has reviewed the study by the National Acadamies “page by page” and carefully considers how actions by his agency mesh with the cleanup plan. The EPA has reviewed and signed off on the Forest Service’s proposed management plan for the forests, he said.

Johnson also points out the Forest Service has been working to clean up dozens of old mines across the forest, including a huge project this summer to clean up the defunct Silver Crescent mine. For decades that mine had been leaking arsenic, mercury and other toxic materials into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.

“We’re being as responsive as possible with anything that has to do with metals,” he said.

With increasingly limited budgets, however, the agency is having trouble finding ways to pay for the restoration needing to be done. Much of the money for stream restoration came from timber harvests, which have declined four-fold in the past 15 years. The restoration of Yellow Dog and Tepee creeks was funded by earlier timber sales.

Swick, the ranger, said forest thinning to reduce wildfire risk on the periphery of the forest – the agency’s main focus these days – simply doesn’t provide enough commercially valuable timber to support restoration work. Nowadays, there’s not even enough money to maintain the 33 restrooms scattered across the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, much less fix aging roads or restore damaged streams, Swick said.

He believes that modern logging practices could allow commercially valuable timber harvests to take place without jeopardizing the health of watersheds. The agency is planning several such projects, including one east of Hayden Lake and another along Iron and Honey creeks about 20 miles east of Coeur d’Alene. Any such project would be carefully examined to ensure it would not disturb heavy metals downstream, Swick said.

“It very much is a strong driver in how we look at management,” Swick said. “We recognize the issues and legacy we’re dealing with.”

If anyone has doubts, Swick invites them to take a peek at Yellow Dog and Tepee creeks. “Let the ground do the talking,” he said.

Mike Mihelich of Coeur d’Alene has been a longtime critic of how the Forest Service has treated North Idaho’s landscape and has worked with the Kootenai Environmental Alliance on several successful lawsuits aimed at stopping recent timber sales. After a recent visit to Yellow Dog Creek, Mihelich said he was impressed by what he saw. “They really did do a good job at restoration,” he said.

But so many more streams need help, and there’s little money to pay for the work. Although some of the timber sales now on the drawing board could provide more money for restoration, Mihelich worries these projects will further damage the forest and add to the risk of floods.

“If you’re working in a degraded watershed and you get a little money out of it, are you really improving anything?” Mihelich asked.


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