The Blue Alder timber sale east of Coeur d’Alene was supposed to offer a little something for everyone.
Loggers would profit from 950 acres of timber harvest. For environmentalists, the sale promised an eventual return to open, parklike stands of ponderosa pine and western white pine, improving habitat for flammulated owls, pygmy nuthatches and other sensitive species.
Local governments would benefit, too. The Blue Alder project would thin dense stands of fire-prone trees where rural residences butt up against Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
Hailed as a project to help diverse interests find common ground in the litigious realm of forest management, the Blue Alder sale instead is exposing cracks in the Coeur d’Alene Forestry Coalition.
The Lands Council of Spokane, a key player in the coalition, now says it has serious concerns about the number of big trees that would be cut during the Forest Service sale. Timber industry representatives, who spent two years at the negotiating table, are frustrated. Forest Service officials remain hopeful the collaborative effort can be salvaged.
“This is our first real exercise, our maiden voyage,” said Coeur d’Alene River District Ranger Randy Swick. “Everyone wants this to be a success. … It’s a lengthy process, and when you hit a little bump, you continue on.”
The Coeur d’Alene Forestry Coalition is modeled after a nationally recognized effort at Colville National Forest. About six years ago, loggers, environmentalists and businesses began getting together to discuss management of the 1.1 million acre forest in northeast Washington.
Colville National Forest was in a virtual lockdown when the talks began, with appeals and lawsuits from environmental organizations halting most of the timber sales. Now, such appeals are rare.
But the process isn’t easy or foolproof, members of the Coeur d’Alene Forestry Coalition have discovered. Fissures in their collaborative effort appeared during an August field trip to one of Blue Alder’s proposed harvest sites.
Mike Petersen, the Land Council’s executive director, said he was dismayed to see so many big, old Grand fir trees marked for harvest. Some were 2 feet or more in diameter, and they were the remaining big trees left amid extensive clearcuts, he said.
The damage from historic logging practices – including silted-in and boulder-ridden streams – is still apparent on the landscape, said Petersen, who also participates in the Colville forest collaboration. “Here’s this island of native forest, and they’re going to go in and mow it down.”
The Forest Service defends the Blue Alder project. In a 13,500-acre planning area, the agency proposes cutting 950 acres of trees and burning underbrush on nearly 2,000 acres.
During decades of fire suppression, dense stands of fir trees crowded out the Ponderosa pines, the larch and the western white pine that once dominated those slopes, Swick said. Now, many of the fir trees are dying from root rot or insects. Restocking selected stands with hardier pine and larch would improve the forest’s vigor, he said. It also would create fire breaks between the national forest and an estimated 200 nearby homes. Swick’s staff has been working to address the Land Council’s concerns. Some stands of Grand fir will likely come out of the sale, he said last week.
The size of future clearcuts is also a point of contention, said Serena Carlson, a spokeswoman for the Intermountain Forestry Association, which represents timber interests. Though environmental groups tend to want smaller clearcuts, sun-loving pines regenerate better in larger openings, she said.
Despite the differences, Carlson said timber interests remain committed to participating in the process. “We’re willing to explore any option that will keep timber out of the courts and get it into the mills,” she said.
Forest Service officials hope to finalize the Blue Alder project and put it out for bid early next year.