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Idaho counties air objections to new forest plan

North Idaho’s counties want more influence over how the U.S. Forest Service manages hundreds of thousands of acres in the region.

Actions such as road closures, fire management and proposed wilderness areas affect local governments, their citizens and their tax base, the county officials said. They said officials at the Idaho Panhandle National Forests didn’t listen to their concerns when the agency developed a new forest plan.

“Seventy-four percent of the lands in Shoshone County are federally owned,” said Larry Yergler, a Shoshone County commissioner.

With such a large land base, Forest Service actions affect everything from the number of local timber jobs to revenue for the county’s road budget, he said.

Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for individuals and organizations who filed objections to the revised forest plan to air their issues before a Forest Service review officer. Associate Deputy Chief Jim Pena traveled from Washington, D.C., for the hearing.

Pena listened to a variety of objections to the plan, which lays out the future management direction for the 2.5-million-acre forest. But the morning session was dominated by the Forest Service’s interaction with local governments. Representatives from all five northern counties spoke.

Local officials said the Forest Service wasn’t meeting its obligation to consult with local counties on a government-to-government basis. Some wanted more meetings with agency officials, and assurance that the issues they raised were given more weight than individual public comments. Others challenged federal authority.

“The concept of federal supremacy just doesn’t float well with us,” Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen said.

Pena said the Forest Service is required to reach out to local and state governments through meaningful dialogue during the forest planning process. But local and state government’s input is advisory only, he said.

In reviewing the written record for the forest plan, Pena said it wasn’t clear what steps officials at the Idaho Panhandle National Forests had taken to engage local governments in the planning process. During Tuesday’s hearing, he leaned toward recommending additional discussions between the agency and local governments, including the tribes, before the forest plan is finalized. However, Pena’s formal recommendation will be delivered to Northern Regional Forester Faye Krueger at a later date.

The issues raised by the counties aren’t unique to North Idaho, Forest Service officials said. The agency has such a large economic impact on rural counties that counties want to assert their influence, Krueger said.

It’s a balancing act for the Forest Service, which also must follow federal mandates, Pena said.

“Our forests are important resources for the nation as well as local communities,” he said. “These are national assets as well as local assets.”