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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

New forestry law takes root

The first of the supposedly faster, sleeker Healthy Forest Restoration Act projects for Inland Northwest forests has recently been unveiled by federal land managers.

Six projects are planned for North Idaho and two are in the works for northeast Washington.

The 11-month-old law was meant to unjam the lengthy approval process for forest thinning projects. Environmentalists worry the emphasis on speed could reduce thoughtful analysis. But in communities where timber once reigned, hopes are running high that the law will help reduce the risk of wildfire and, in the process, create high-paying jobs.

The law could bring large changes to forestry, but it’s unlikely to be the magic bullet, said Pat Behrens, a U.S. Forest Service silviculturist in Bonners Ferry. “A lot of people are speculating that way,” he said. “But it’s way too early to tell. This is the first time out the door with this new tool.”

Near Bonners Ferry, the Forest Service plans to employ the tool in the Myrtle Creek Valley, where a 2003 wildfire burned 3,600 acres. With the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, agency scientists are no longer required to analyze the potential impacts of four or five alternatives for each project. In theory, this should make it easier for the Forest Service to plan more projects.

“We’re still not sure exactly how much quicker it’s going to be,” Behrens said. “This is the first test for us.”

Appeals also are limited – only groups or individuals who participate in the planning process are allowed to file objections. Previously, the appeals process could drag on for nearly four months after a project was approved. Under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, once a decision is made, the work on the ground can begin, said Sherry Lionberger, a team leader with the Coeur d’Alene River ranger district.

“The idea is to get people involved up front very heavily,” Lionberger said. “It’s a lot more of an open collaboration.”

The Myrtle Creek work is expected to begin shortly after a decision is issued in June. Near Wallace, forest thinning could begin as soon as early spring on a Healthy Forest Restoration Act project proposed for a thick stand of timber just south of town.

The proposal for the Placer Project, as it’s called, includes about 1,100 acres of brush burning and 870 acres of various degrees of forest thinning. Watershed restoration work also is being planned. The thick forests in the area pose some of the greatest wildfire risk to any community in North Idaho, according to Forest Service analysis.

Computer modeling of fire behavior shows trouble for Wallace if a wildfire enters the Placer Creek drainage, Lionberger said. “No matter where it started in the drainage, (the fire) tended to move toward Wallace.” History is also a guide – a 1910 fire that traveled down the drainage burned a large portion of the town.

Local support is running high for the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, said Jeff Legg, project manager for the Shoshone County Fire Mitigation Program. Some residents have been critical of the Forest Service for not addressing the problem earlier.

“We really haven’t had any major fires since 1910,” Legg said. “All of this brush has been accumulating for 100 years.”

The county’s program, funded by federal dollars, already has thinned a wide buffer strip of privately owned forest south of Wallace. The strip might not stop a fire from rolling through town, but it could slow the advance and create an important safety zone for firefighters, Legg said.

The Bureau of Land Management also is involved in the work near Wallace and has a Healthy Forest Restoration Act project of its own near Mullan. The proposed Islands Project calls for protecting stands of mature trees on several islands of BLM land, said Kurt Pavlat, assistant field manager in the agency’s Coeur d’Alene office. The thinning is needed to protect the bigger, older trees, he said. The agency hopes to have the 135-acre proposal ready by next fall.

Pavlat is hopeful the new law will make the federal government quicker in its response to the management needs of local forests. “With anything new it takes a while for momentum to build up,” he said. “But anything that speeds up the bureaucracy is an improvement. Is it going to be earth-shattering? No.”

Other local Healthy Forest Restoration Act projects include a proposal to thin a large swath of overly thick forest south of Interstate 90 between Fourth of July Pass and Rose Lake. The Red Beauty project is currently in planning stages and will not likely begin until next fall, Lionberger said.

A thinning project also is being planned for forest east of Silverwood. The Sage Roush proposal calls for protecting remaining stands of fire-resistant western larch by harvesting surrounding Douglas fir trees, Lionberger said.

Two Healthy Forest Restoration Act projects also are slated for northeast Washington, said Cynthia Reichelt, spokeswoman for the Colville National Forest. The agency has worked with the Colville Community Forestry Coalition to direct funds and resources at the most pressing risks for wildfire. Community planning is a key element of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, law, Reichelt said.

The Burnt Valley Project, for forest thinning north of Chewelah, Wash., already has been approved. Another project for the Orient area is under consideration.

The Lands Council, of Spokane, is one of the groups represented on the Colville Community Forestry Coalition. The timber industry also has representatives.

“We all kind of balance each other out,” said Travis Coletti, a wildfire education coordinator for the Lands Council.

Coletti said he is concerned the Healthy Forest Restoration Act will make it easier for the agency to justify backcountry timber harvests in the name of wildfire protection, but he added that it’s too early to judge the new law.

“It can be taken advantage of and abused. It just depends how you use it,” he said. “We’ll see how these first couple of projects go.”

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