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Eye On Boise

‘Good Neighbor Authority’ brings IDL a new mission: More active management of fed forests

Idaho has been seeing success with using the “Good Neighbor Authority” it was granted under the 2014 federal Farm Bill to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and increase active management and timber harvests on national forests in the state – and it’s poised to ramp the program up. “Right now we have two foresters doing GNA projects across the state, so we’re looking to significantly expand this program,” state Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz told the state Land Board today.

In the department’s budget request for next year, it’s asking for eight new positions, all from dedicated funds. That would allow the department to create a new GNA Bureau within its Forestry & Fire Division, and up the staffing for GNA programs from the current 4.3 positions to 12.3.

Two Forest Service officials touted the success of the program to the Land Board on Tuesday. “How we accomplish the work is evolving,” Nora Rasure, USFS regional forester for the Intermountain Region, told the board, “and I think that’s what’s exciting – that we can find new and different ways to get that work done.”

She said through the use of GNA and forest collaboratives, state and federal agencies are bringing their efforts together. “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,” she said.

Under GNA, the state Department of Lands can offer its expertise and help to the Forest Service where the service’s staffing is short, for everything from administering contracts for timber sales to jointly designing projects that are backed by local collaboratives.

David Groeschl, Idaho state forester, said the goals of the Idaho program include increasing the pace and scale of forest and watershed restoration, and producing more timber from federal forests to support rural economies. GNA projects still go through federal environmental reviews. But Groeschl said the USFS doesn’t have sufficient funding to do all the projects envisioned in its forest plans; the Idaho GNA program is aimed at providing state help to get more of those done, while also boosting rural economies.

Jane Darnell, deputy regional forester for the USFS Northern Region, said, “We clearly are far more successful getting our projects implemented and through the decision process when we’re working together in this fashion.” She added, “We’ve always worked together, I think, pretty well, but we really are taking it to a new level.”

Groeschl said the goal of the program is for it to be entirely self-supporting within three to five years – meaning revenue from timber sales in the program would fund not only those operations, but also non-revenue generating forest restoration work. And the state and federal governments, which along with industry donors provided seed money to start the program, would no longer need to contribute toward its funding.

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.

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.”

Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, attended the Land Board meeting. “We’ve been involved in a lot of these collaboratives,” he said afterward. “We are cautiously supportive of the program. We see it as a good way to get work done.” He called GNA “a good tool, but one that we’re certainly watching closely.”

Gov. Butch Otter, long a champion of the GNA program, said, “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.”

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

Good Neighbor Authority was first granted by Congress to the state of Colorado in 2000 for efforts to mitigate the impacts of catastrophic wildfires; Utah got the authority in 2004. The 2014 federal Farm Bill extended it to all states. Because Idaho had numerous forest collaboratives already 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.

Schultz said the piece Idaho’s been able to include that earlier states didn’t is actual timber sales – which add the jobs and economic impact piece, along with fund the program itself.

“This really is cooperation at its best,” Schultz said. He said in his view, the state Department of Lands is now looking at a new mission, in addition to its traditional endowment mission: “To help facilitate the active management of the national forests.”

Otter has long been active in efforts by the Western Governors Association to get something like this going. “So we’ve got our mission,” he said. “And I’m just glad to hear everybody is excited about it.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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