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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Timber lawsuits frustrate Forest Service, city leaders

The increasingly loud roar coming from the national forest of far northern Idaho isn’t from a chain saw. It’s the sound of complaining from community leaders and Forest Service officials frustrated over what they say are the tactics of environmental groups that have succeeded in delaying or completely derailing a string of timber sales.

Although they lost a court scrimmage Monday, groups including the Spokane-based Lands Council have managed to stall two major projects in recent months – projects they claim would irreparably harm a national forest that’s just starting to recover after decades of heavy logging.

The actions have poured gasoline on a long-smoldering dispute over the management of the 2.5-million-acre Idaho Panhandle National Forests. An even bigger blowup could come next month when the Forest Service unveils its plan to selectively log the municipal watershed of Bonners Ferry.

About 3,500 acres of the largely roadless Myrtle Creek valley went up in smoke three summers ago. Community leaders and the Forest Service want to thin portions of what remains to prevent another blowup.

Environmental groups, including the Lands Council, point out the 2003 fire was fueled by slash piles left from an earlier logging project. They say the new work being proposed by the Forest Service goes far beyond a small amount of selective thinning and prescribed burning.

“Clearly it has nothing to do with forest health. It’s a huge logging project,” said Mike Petersen, director of The Lands Council. “The Idaho Panhandle (National Forests) continues to call everything ‘forest health projects.’ ”

The Forest Service hopes to begin work on the project this summer and eventually thin about 2,200 acres in the steep drainage, which can be seen from downtown Bonners Ferry. No lawsuits have been filed over the project – it won’t be formally unveiled for another month – but Petersen said the proposal is “completely unacceptable.”

“It continues to be shocking to me that they plan to do regeneration cuts in a municipal water supply,” he said. “Ultimately, a lot of towns don’t log their municipal water supply.”

One of the biggest backers of the thinning has been Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby, who believes the town’s water supply faces imminent risk of another wildfire. The 2003 blaze temporarily knocked out the water system after torrents of mud and ash flowed into Myrtle Creek.

Kerby said the project has been thoroughly vetted by experts from a variety of federal and state agencies. He’s wary another lawsuit could be coming soon to stop the project and was angered by Petersen’s criticism.

“For all his belief he is the savior of the earth, I can’t rely on him to provide resource information on my watershed,” Kerby said of Petersen. “I have to live with the results. I have a community that needs to drink that water year in and year out.”

Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning was equally angered. “It just rubs me the wrong way. Our local citizenry is having to bear the burden of outside people shutting down our woods,” he said.

The words might be harsh, but Kerby and Dinning say appeals and lawsuits by environmental groups are increasingly hurting their local economy. A sawmill in nearby Moyie Springs recently announced that 60-some laid-off positions would be permanently cut. This sent the county’s unemployment rate up to 11 percent – the highest in Idaho, Dinning said.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress has not renewed a program that sends millions of dollars each year to counties, including Boundary, to help make up for the collapse of timber receipts from national forests in the 1990s. The program pays for nearly half the county’s road and bridge program, and sends about $300,000 annually to schools in the county. Dinning hoped new timber projects would help make up for the loss. Otherwise, “the local property owner is the one that will have to pick that up,” Dinning said.

Two major timber sales in Boundary County have been stalled by lawsuits or appeals from conservation groups this year.

This spring, the Forest Service indefinitely delayed the 900-acre Templeman forest thinning project near Bonners Ferry after environmentalists objected that it would threaten rare wildlife and damage soil and water.

In October, the Lands Council and the Missoula-based Wildwest Institute sued to stop the Mission Brush project, which called for thinning about 7,200 acres north of Bonners Ferry. That project was expected to yield about 25 million board feet of timber and help reduce the risk of wildfire, but environmentalists say the work would have irreparably harmed a forest that’s home to rare species, such as grizzly bears, goshawks and fishers.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, of Boise, dismissed the groups’ request to stop the work.

“Following one of the worst fire seasons in history, the need for fire suppression is an important public interest and is one of the goals of this project,” Lodge wrote. The judge also asked why the groups waited to file their lawsuit until just weeks before the project was set to begin.

Bonners Ferry District Ranger Mike Herrin insisted both projects would have left the forest in better shape. Most of the work was designed to thin out fire-prone tree species that have thrived during recent decades of wildfire suppression.

“It’s old growth today; when we finish it would still be old growth,” Herrin said. “We’re not in the business of cutting down big trees. … Ecologically, we think we’re going to have a better forest when we’re done and it’s going to have some benefits to the community economically.”

Petersen, with the Lands Council, said he was not sure if the groups would appeal the Mission Brush decision. He stressed that he and other conservationists have offered input on the disputed projects long before legal action was taken, but that the Forest Service continues to focus its efforts on harvesting timber in ecologically sensitive areas, including roadless and old growth forest.

Petersen also said the local timber economy is ailing because of a glut of cheap lumber from British Columbia, not because of lawsuits from environmental groups.