December 1, 2013 in Idaho, Outdoors

Idaho Panhandle National Forests plan panned by environmentalists

By The Spokesman-Review

A hiker scrambles up the granite talus above Harrison Lake in the Idaho Selkirk Mountains with Harrison Peak in the background. This backcountry destination in the upper Pack River drainage was recommended for wilderness designation by the Forest Service in the 1980s, but the Idaho Panhandle National Forests plan does not include this area in wilderness recommendations.
(Full-size photo)

Majestic old stands of pines, cedars and firs don’t have enough protections under the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ draft management plan, according to environmental groups, who say the big trees need more safeguards.

Old-growth stands, characterized by large-diameter trees and complex ecological systems, comprise about 10 percent of the forest. Environmental groups say forest managers should work toward reestablishing old-growth on 30 percent of the forest to reflect historic conditions.

Instead, the draft plan for the 2.5 million-acre national forest gives managers the discretion to log existing old-growth trees, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Kootenai Environmental Alliance and other groups wrote in formal objection letters.

“The Forest Service could choose to log large, old trees down to the degree that a stand could barely qualify as old-growth, and that would be consistent with the forest plan,” wrote Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council.

Without clear protections for old-growth, animals that use that habitat are also at risk, the groups said.

Jason Kirchner, an Idaho Panhandle National Forests spokesman, declined to respond directly, saying the objections would be considered during a U.S. Forest Service review process that begins in January.

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests is updating its forest plan for the first time since 1987. The plan is a 10- to 15-year road map for guiding management of the forest, which stretches from the St. Joe River to the Canadian border.

Objection letters filed last week represent the “last time to try to influence the plan through an administrative process,” said Jeff Juel, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The letters are sent to the deputy chief of the Forest Service and reviewed at the federal level.

Conservation groups also raised other concerns about the draft plan. They were critical of what they called a lack of commitment to scientific monitoring and failure to establish measureable standards in areas such as water quality and wildlife habitat.

The impact of logging on watersheds, including the transport of heavy metals into Lake Coeur d’Alene, also emerged as a concern. Logging can increase peak flows during flood events, moving historic mine waste deposited in flood plains downstream, said John Osborn, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group.

The Forest Service has the opportunity to “re-knit a damaged landscape” through the plan, the Lands Council’s Petersen said. And while that appears to be the agency’s goal, the plan doesn’t outline a clear path for getting there, he said.

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