April 11, 2007 in Idaho

Roadless plan getting federal review

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review

Federal forest managers have begun scrutinizing environmental impacts of Idaho’s plan to manage its 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest, including several tracts in Kootenai County.

Should it become law, it would be the first time a state gets to determine the destiny of much of its pristine backcountry. Colorado could follow, officials there say.

Idaho’s 69-page plan has split the environmentalist community, with some saying any departure from a national roadless plan gives states too much control and leaves federal territory vulnerable to logging and drilling. Others argue Idaho’s plan is actually more protective than President Clinton’s 2001 roadless rule.

Timber-industry groups praise it, saying it allows logging to promote forest health.

“It allows Idaho to manage its forest resources rather than allowing them to burn,” said Serena Carlson, spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene-based Intermountain Forest Association. “Idahoans would rather see selective harvesting than catastrophic forest fires.”

Under the proposal, 3.1 million acres would get protections closely matching existing federal wildernesses where roadbuilding is prohibited. Temporary roadbuilding and logging could occur to promote forest health on about 5.5 million acres. Commercial timber harvests could be allowed on 500,000 acres.

Idaho is second only to Alaska in having the most roadless national forest land.

“This brings us another small step closer to fulfilling the promise of a meaningful role for local folks in determining the long-term management of these public lands,” Gov. Butch Otter, on a trade mission to Cuba, said Tuesday. “I hope every Idahoan who can do so takes the opportunity to weigh in on this plan so our state’s voice is heard.”

There’s a 30-day public comment period on what should go into the environmental impact statement.

Since Clinton’s rule six years ago, managing America’s federal forests has been a courtroom ping-pong ball.

Idaho, under Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, was the first to challenge Clinton’s plan. The Bush administration in 2005 issued a replacement rule giving states more control. In September 2006, a California federal judge overturned the Bush edict, and Clinton’s original rule was reinstated. This week, the Bush administration and timber groups said they would appeal.

Amid this, Idaho’s management plan moved ahead under a separate federal rulemaking process. It was accepted in December by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, and now the environmental review is starting.

Some conservation groups cried foul, saying the 30-day comment period is inadequate.

The Heritage Forests Campaign in Washington, D.C., reiterated its concern that letting states determine their own management could create “patchwork oversight.”

“It sets a precedent that could result in the devolution of the federal management of lands, and goes against the philosophy of why national forests were created,” said director Robert Vandermark.

Others are more receptive, including Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League.

The Idaho plan’s provision expanding the area to 3.1 million acres where roads are forbidden is actually more restrictive than roadbuilding that could have occurred under the Clinton rule, they said.

“A lot of folks are encouraged by this (Idaho’s plan), but are approaching this with a fair bit of caution,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a spokesman for the Idaho Conservation League. Chief on his worry list: Of the 500,000 acres the plan opens to general logging, three-quarters are in eastern Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest, home to grizzly bears, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and bull trout.

“We’d like to see those areas fully evaluated,” he said.

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