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Idaho ramps up ‘Good Neighbor Authority’ to boost logging in federal forests

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 22, 2017, 9:04 p.m.

Idaho’s state lands department says it has a new mission: Increasing active management – and logging – on federal forests in the state.

Far from the simmering and often bitter debate over whether states should take over federal lands, Idaho has moved toward its new approach through a collaboration with federal forest managers and the communities where the forests are located.

“This really is cooperation at its best,” said Tom Schultz, director of the Idaho Department of Lands.

Gov. Butch Otter has long been a champion of the approach, which taps the “Good Neighbor Authority” that Congress extended to all states in the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements or contracts with states. Because Idaho already had numerous forest collaboratives in place – which bring together sportsmen, conservationists, industry, local government and more to help design projects to improve forests in their area – it was able to spring into action.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it is, not only to be able to participate in the natural resource base that we’ve got for our economy, but also for our health, our forest health and our safety,” Otter said last week.

Projects on tap range from salvaging burned timber and replanting, to thinning fire-prone forests around rural Idaho communities.

In the department’s budget request for next year, it’s asking for eight new positions to allow it to create a new GNA bureau within its Forestry and Fire Division dedicated to the federal-lands work. That would boost the staffing for GNA programs at the department from its current 4.3 positions to 12.3; program revenues, rather than state general tax funds, would underwrite the new positions.

GNA agreements are currently in place for four national forests in Idaho: the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, the Nez Perce-Clearwater, the Boise and the Payette. Ten projects are scheduled over the first three to five years, and would produce about 65 million board feet of timber and $13 million in program income. Idaho is about 18 months into the program now.

State Forester David Groeschl said if the program succeeds at helping the forests move toward full implementation of their forest plans, they could produce an additional 100 million board feet of timber a year. A University of Idaho study estimated that would mean $68.5 million in additional wages in Idaho, 1,300 direct forest industry jobs, 300 indirect jobs and $118 million in state gross domestic product. “That’s a significant economic boost,” he said, “especially to our local rural economies where this activity would be taking place.”

Groeschl said the biggest difference between Idaho’s approach to GNA and those of other states thus far has been the inclusion of actual timber sales, beyond just restoration work. That’s the piece that brings in both the prospect of jobs and other economic impacts, plus the opportunity for the program to become self-supporting and expand.

“Working with each other to kind of pull and push each other forward, I think we’ve come up with some creative ways for doing the work,” said Nora Rasure, regional forester for the Intermountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Jane Darnell, deputy regional forester for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, which includes the Panhandle, said, “We clearly are far more successful getting our projects implemented and through the decision process when we’re working together in this fashion.”

The program’s first two projects, both in the Nez Perce National Forest, were the Wapiti project, a timber sale that’s now been 35 percent harvested and removed nearly 1 million board-feet of timber; and the Woodrat project, a salvage sale to recover burned timber from the 2015 Clearwater Complex fires and replant the area. That project covers 348 acres and will remove 7.6 million board-feet of timber.

Of the other projects currently in the works, two are in North Idaho’s Panhandle National Forests, in Boundary and Bonner counties. They are:

  • The Hanna Flats project, which is in the planning phase. It includes forest vegetation management and hazardous fuel reduction on 2,000 acres, including timber harvest, prescribed burning and thinning.
  • The Jasper Mountain project, aimed at increasing resilience to insect and disease infestations, will see a timber sale contract awarded in the next six months; it’s expected to produce more than 13 million board feet of logs and generate $3 million in income for the program.