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Myrtle Creek heats up again

Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby examines a road that washed out this spring in the Myrtle Creek Valley, which is the source of the town's drinking water. The valley burned in 2003 and has since been plagued by washouts and erosion. 
 (James Hagengruber / The Spokesman-Review)
Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby examines a road that washed out this spring in the Myrtle Creek Valley, which is the source of the town's drinking water. The valley burned in 2003 and has since been plagued by washouts and erosion. (James Hagengruber / The Spokesman-Review)

BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – Iced tea, coffee and even bathwater stank like campfire smoke after a 2003 fire burned the creek valley that has supplied this town’s drinking water for 80 years.

The air was so dry and forests so thick that the fire was largely unstoppable, said Ranotta McNair, supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The fire burned through the night and headed downhill toward town, stopped only by a dramatic change in the weather.

“It was the hand of God that saved that watershed,” McNair said.

History suggests the Myrtle Creek Valley will burn again. But community leaders and the U.S. Forest Service believe that thinning portions of the forest would make the next fire easier to stop and less damaging. On Monday, McNair unveiled plans to log about 2,100 acres of the 27,000-acre watershed.

The Lands Council, of Spokane, considers the project illegal and intends to fight it in court on grounds that roughly half the logging is to take place in inventoried roadless areas and grizzly bear habitat, said the group’s director, Mike Petersen. Much of the work will be selective thinning, but about 750 acres is slated for “regeneration harvest” in which only a handful of larger, old trees is left standing on each acre.

“It’s really a shame because a small portion of the sale is legitimately for fuel reduction. Most of it’s not. It’s miles from town and it’s going to damage the town’s water supply,” he said. “Most cities don’t clearcut and log their water supply.”

The objection by The Lands Council has infuriated county leaders and the town’s mayor, who say the very fate of Bonners Ferry is at stake. One more fire and the town of 3,500 would be left high and dry, said Mayor Darrell Kerby, who began pushing for a massive thinning project even before the embers cooled.

“Every fire season makes you hold your breath,” Kerby said. “It’s a no-brainer. Without water, you don’t have a community. There is nothing more important than to protect that source of water.”

The project calls for three timber sales to take place over the next three years. Roughly 10 million board feet would be cut, generating about $1.3 million for further restoration work for the valley, according to the environmental impact statement released Monday.

One grizzly bear is known to be denning in the area of the watershed, and the logging would take place at times when bears are least likely to be affected, McNair said. There will be no new roads, and more than 20 miles of existing logging road would be rebuilt to guard against erosion and washouts.

Logging in the roadless areas is being done to provide a series of strategic fire breaks and was planned with help from the agency’s top fire behavior scientists. Although President Clinton banned most logging in roadless areas, the rule contains exceptions for protecting communities, McNair said.

“We’re talking about a community’s water. When they put exceptions in place, why wouldn’t it be this one?” McNair said. “We care about roadless. We care about endangered species. We care that a community exists and they can turn the tap on.”

McNair expects to sign the final approval documents for the project later this spring. Before she does, there will be a 30-day period for objections – but only groups that participated in planning the project can participate. The project was one of the first in the Inland Northwest to be planned under the Bush administration’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The law was intended to reduce litigation by solving problems early in the planning process.

The Lands Council participated in the process and has the legal right to object. Petersen said his group simply cannot agree to logging in roadless areas in an already damaged watershed. The 2003 fire started in a slash pile left from recent logging in the valley, he pointed out. More logging will only further destabilize the thin soils and increase the risk of another slash pile-fueled burn.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “Many other environmental organizations consider this a poster child for what’s wrong with Forest Service management today.”

Kerby said he simply doesn’t understand why The Lands Council opposes the project.

“I’ve been trying to learn. I’ve been trying to listen real hard,” he said during a Monday morning gathering with Forest Service officials and other local leaders at City Hall. “I can’t imagine somebody being against protecting our water for philosophical reasons.”

After Kerby made the comment, a theory was offered by Gary Aitken Sr., former chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. Aitken, who supports the project, thinks The Lands Council is trying to remain relevant as an opposition group.

“They’re fighting for their jobs,” he said.

Three major washouts have occurred in recent weeks in the Myrtle Creek Valley after snowmelt gushed over areas burned in 2003. It’s the worst erosion since the fires and prompted the town to briefly switch to a less-abundant backup source last week, Kerby said.