After 220 public meetings and countless hours of work by scientists, lawyers and foresters, the U.S. Forest Service has released a proposed management plan for North Idaho’s 2.5 million acres of federal forest.
The agency is giving the public one more chance to have a say before the final plan is released this fall. Ultimately, it will serve as a 169-page mission statement for how the forests are managed, ranging from wilderness protection to timber harvest to how fires are fought, said Ranotta McNair, supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
“It’s a general strategic guide and a contract with the public,” McNair said. “What this plan does is guide a ranger or guide myself when we make decisions.”
The IPNF supports some 3,200 timber, tourism and recreation jobs, worth an estimated $92 million in local income, according to the Forest Service. The forested lands are also the source of clean drinking water, wildlife habitat and some of the nation’s best backcountry camping, hunting, hiking, berry-picking and motorized vehicle riding.
Given the forests’ importance, the proposed management plan is being carefully scrutinized by both environmentalists and timber groups. For the most part, the new plan offers few changes from the last time it was written in 1987, according to those who have read it.
Because of Bush administration changes to forest planning rules, the management plans include fewer specifics or quantifiable standards, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, with the Idaho Conservation League. This leaves the plan fairly vague, he said. “The forest plan says, ‘we the Forest Service are going to generally do good things and generally not do bad things.’ “
Mike Mahelic, a Coeur d’Alene resident who works on forest issues for the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, said the plan seems vague to the point that he questions its value. “I don’t really see what it accomplished,” he said.
Shawn Keough, an Idaho state senator and executive director of Associated Logging Contractors, has not yet reviewed the plan line-by-line, but she praised the agency’s efforts to seek public input on the plan. “They’ve worked very hard to get out to the public and be responsive,” Keough said.
But Keough also noted the agency seems increasingly focused on planning rather than doing. “We get a little frustrated because it seems our folks in Washington, D.C., want them to spend more time at a desk planning rather than out on the land. We don’t think that’s the best use of resources.”
The following is a glimpse at how the plan will influence some of the hot-button issues of forest management.
“Timber. Since 2000, IPNF lands have generated an average of about 60 million board feet of timber annually. This is down dramatically from peak levels in the 1980s, when upwards of 280 million board feet a year was cut. In fact, the 1987 forest plan had even predicted the forest could eventually sustain a cut of 500 million board feet. The new forest plan calls for an annual cut in the range of 69 million to 73 million board feet.
“We think that’s pretty sustainable,” McNair said.
Most of the harvest will be focused on thickly forested areas near communities and will be aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The plan also calls for increasing the amount of fire-adapted, drought-tolerant tree species in the forest, such as western white pine, larch, whitebark pine and ponderosa pine.
“Wilderness. Both the new plan and the 1987 plan continue to recommend four areas for the congressional designation, which prohibits timber harvest and motorized recreation. The four areas include the Scotchman Peaks east of Sandpoint, the Mallard-Larkin area in the southeast corner of the forest, an eastward expansion of Washington’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness and an area along the Selkirk Crest and into Long Canyon near Bonners Ferry. The total amount of recommended wilderness is 138,900 acres, which is down about 7,000 acres recommended from the 1987 plan.
Many environmental groups are furious the recommended wilderness designation was not applied to the portion of the Scotchman Peaks in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. “The integrity of the whole is violated,” said Phil Hough, chairman of Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.
In Montana, 34,700 acres of the Scotchman Peaks are proposed to be managed as “wildlands,” which is essentially the same as wilderness, but without the agency recommendation for permanent protection from Congress. “It may sound semantic, but it is a very big difference,” Hough said, adding that without congressional action, the Forest Service could go back and open the area for development, depending on the political climate or whims of forest managers.
Overall, about one-third of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests will be managed as wilderness or as “backcountry.” The backcountry designation reflects roadless area boundaries from the 1987 plan, McNair said. The areas won’t be managed for timber production, but motorized recreation will be allowed in certain spots.
“Motorized recreation. The plan mostly sidesteps this issue, which has become contentious in recent years as ATV use has surged. Riders of the four-wheeled machines claim few trails are open to their sport. The Forest Service is now starting to deal with the issue in a separate planning process, said Dave O’Brien, spokesman for the agency. In the next four years, detailed travel plans will be developed for each ranger district on the forest, starting this year with the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, which sees the highest amount of use. The planning process has already started and will result in designating specific routes for motorcycles, ATVs and muscle-powered users. The next meeting for this process will be Wednesday, May 31, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Canyon Elementary School, which is 1.2 miles east of Interstate 90’s exit 34 interchange.