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Human neighbors present challenges in forest planning

Heading to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests for some outdoor recreation? You’ll probably pass a rural subdivision.

Encroaching houses are the new reality for the 2.5 million-acre forest, which released a new draft management plan this week.

Since the latest forest plan was adopted in 1987, North Idaho has added nearly 100,000 residents. Not surprisingly, many of them want to live along scenic corridors and lakes abutting federal forest lands. New neighborhoods at Hayden Lake, Priest Lake, the eastern edge of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Pack River near Sandpoint are examples of rapid residential development near forest boundaries.

“You look at real estate ads these days. They say, ‘Adjacent to national forest lands.’ That’s a selling point for people,” said Mary Farnsworth, forest supervisor.

It also means the forest has a whole lot more neighbors. Forty percent of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ acreage now lies within “wild- land-urban interface” areas, which means the forest boundary is adjacent to private residences, municipal watersheds or infrastructure such as power lines.

That has implications for fighting wildfires and managing insect outbreaks on Forest Service lands. It also affects migrating wildlife – which doesn’t stop at property lines – and planning for recreational use.

“It’s the community’s backyard,” said Linda Clark, a Forest Service planner. “People love their national forest. Everyone has their desire of what the national forest should do for them.”

Beginning next week, Forest Service officials will discuss the draft plan at a series of open houses. They’re expecting a good turnout. In addition to being an immediate neighbor to many North Idaho residents, the forest is an easy drive from Spokane, the Inland Northwest’s largest metro area. Thousands of people hunt, hike, camp, fish, snowmobile and ride ATVs in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests each year.

Written comments on the draft plan will be accepted for 90 days. Farnsworth’s goal is to adopt a new plan by the end of 2012, which will guide decisions on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests for the next 10 to 15 years.

“It’s our contract with the public,” she said of the forest plan. “It’s how we will manage the public’s lands into the future.”

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests covers a diverse landscape, sharing a border with Canada and including acreage in Washington and Montana. The forest is home to federally protected grizzly bears, woodland caribou, bull trout and Canada lynx.

The draft plan emphasizes healthy watersheds, forest restoration and a mix of recreational opportunities, Farnsworth said. Here’s a quick look at some of the major themes.

Wilderness: 160,600 acres are listed as proposed wilderness areas, including Long Canyon in the Selkirk Range, Scotchman Peak, Mallard Larkins and an addition to the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness.

Those areas will be managed to preserve existing wilderness attributes, in case a future Congress wants to formally designate them as wilderness areas. The draft forest plan also designates 21,400 acres as primitive lands, including the Pack River’s headwaters and a popular mountain-biking trail near the recommended Salmo-Priest Wilderness addition. Timber sales are prohibited on primitive lands, but motorized use and mountain biking would be allowed.

“People want wild lands that they can access,” said Jason Kirchner, a Forest Service spokesman.

Timber sales: Annual timber sales are projected at 45 million to 50 million board feet under the draft plan, similar to current harvest levels.

The figure should provide some certainty for the region’s struggling timber industry, but Forest Service officials note that federal budgets will influence how much money is available for timber sale planning.

“We’re very concerned about losing (sawmills),” Farnsworth said. “If there’s no place for the timber to go, we can’t effectively thin our forests.”

Global warming: For the first time, the draft plan mentions the anticipated effects of global climate change.

“We want to manage a forest that’s drought-tolerant and fire-resistant,” said Clark, the forest planner.

Grizzlies: The draft incorporates recent grizzly bear policy, aimed at keeping people and grizzlies farther apart. Some backcountry roads could be closed to reduce motorized use in core grizzly habitat.