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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some timber sales on hold while USFS clarifies ruling

Fights over federal forest policy are often fiery, but the latest one includes some memorable howling.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would be suspending hundreds of projects across the Inland Northwest after a judge ruled the agency needed to include more public involvement in its decisions. Not only will the decision halt some fuels-thinning projects and trail work, but one top agency official said a public comment period might now even be needed before a toilet can be fixed.

The BlueRibbon Coalition, an Idaho group pushing for more off-road vehicle access to federal lands, went so far as to accuse environmentalists of stealing Christmas. The group issued a press release Thursday with the headline: “Anti-recreation lawsuit bans Whitehouse Christmas tree and other forest activities.”

Forest Service officials admit the George W. Bush family will not likely need a 135-day comment period to obtain a holiday tree from a national forest. Public meetings or lengthy appeals processes won’t likely be required for every plugged toilet, either, said Rex Holloway, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Washington and Oregon region.

“Those are some of the things we need to get further clarification on,” Holloway said. “If you took it to the extreme, yeah, things like building maintenance might possibly have to be provided a notice and comment period.”

But several large projects in the Colville and Idaho Panhandle national forests are definitely on hold, including fuels-thinning projects covering almost 6,500 acres near Kettle Falls, Wash., and many smaller similar projects scattered across North Idaho.

The confusion over the full impact of the ruling follows a federal court order from a California judge, who said the agency must include a public notice and comment period on even relatively small projects. Late last week, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth ordered an immediate halt to all the agency’s so-called “categorical exclusion” projects approved between July 7 and Sept. 16.

Categorical exclusions were widely popular among agency foresters because they allowed district rangers to bypass certain environmental reviews and public comment periods on projects deemed to have little impact to the land. The projects are typically small, ranging from the salvage of dead trees on 250 acres or less, to road repairs, fuels thinning and stream restoration work. Categorical exclusions are also used to issue special-use permits for everything from filmmakers shooting a scene on federal lands to hunting guides and Boy Scout camps.

About 170 projects in Oregon and Washington are suspended by the ruling, including 13 projects involving timber sales, Holloway said.

In North Idaho and Montana, at least 100 projects are stalled by the ruling, according to a statement issued Wednesday by Regional Forester Gail Kimball. “Projects conducted by contract, permit or other means – like reducing hazardous fuels, improving wildlife habitat, repairing roads, fixing a toilet and even cutting firewood – could be affected,” according to Kimball’s statement.

Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said agency talk of toilets or Christmas tree cutting bans are exaggerations. “It sounds like they’re broadening the scope of the ruling to get some media attention,” he said. No local environmental groups were litigants in the California lawsuit, though the issue of categorical exclusions has been high on the watch lists of those concerned with how forests are being managed, Oppenheimer said.

The ruling is simply aimed at ensuring the public has a chance to participate, Oppenheimer said. Near Priest Lake alone, about 20 categorical exclusion thinning projects had been approved or were moving forward. “It certainly looked like one big project cut up into 20 separate bits to try to get it to fit in these categories,” Oppenheimer said. “There wasn’t really any recourse if there were concerns about these projects other than to litigate. This restores the administrative appeals process where citizens can raise concerns without going straight into the courts.”

Environmentalists say categorical exclusions have become so widely used in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests that it’s difficult to keep pace with the projects.

“They come at you so fast and then they’re logged,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council, which supports the now-stalled Kettle Falls thinning projects. “These things happen so quickly. The public has no opportunity to look at them.”

Paula Nelson, spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Montana and North Idaho region, said her office doesn’t keep track of the number of thinning projects approved through the categorical exclusion process. When pressed, she said some planning officials at the agency might actually have the information, but that “it is client-attorney privileged information.”

Community leaders in forested areas have accused the Forest Service of “analysis paralysis” for not having the ability to act quickly to reduce the threat of wildfire or to salvage fallen trees after a windstorm or beetle attack. Although top agency officials are still trying to interpret the full scope of the ruling, it appears certain that any project involving cutting a tree will be further slowed, said Jim Barrett, a planning forester in the agency’s Sandpoint office.

In the Sandpoint district alone, two fuels-thinning projects have now been suspended, including thinning on nearly 180 acres of an overgrown pine plantation near Careywood and about 800 acres of fire-prone forest near Lakeview, Barrett said. The projects would have reduced the risk of fire, as well as supplied nearly 3 million board feet of lumber to mills.

“We’re going to have to regroup. If this holds up, it’s going to slow us down significantly,” he said, noting that the rule was well-liked by foresters. “It was a good tool. This has given us some real flexibility. This gave us the opportunity to get in and do something and do it fairly quickly.”