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Tuesday, March 31, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Collaboration offers suggestions for Panhandle Forests

Bob Boeh of the Idaho Forest Group talked about finding agreement on management of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests near his office in Laclede, Idaho, on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Bob Boeh of the Idaho Forest Group talked about finding agreement on management of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests near his office in Laclede, Idaho, on Wednesday. (Kathy Plonka)

For four decades, truckloads of logs rolling out of the woods were Bob Boeh’s primary interest in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

No surprise since his employer, Idaho Forest Group, depends on federal timber sales to help keep five sawmills churning out 2-by-4s.

But Boeh also finds himself pondering old-growth habitat for owls and woodpeckers these days, along with wilderness areas and scenic river designations. He’s part of a collaborative group of timber industry officials and environmentalists searching for common ground. They’re working on the premise that healthy forests support healthy rural economies.

Though loggers and tree huggers are historic adversaries, they’re recognizing that lawsuits and antagonism can result in losing scenarios for both sides.

Controversial timber sales hurt mill workers by generating legal challenges that lead to gridlock. Forest health, meanwhile, suffers when communities lose sawmills, because there are fewer options for thinning dense, fire-prone stands of trees.

“We thought it was time for a paradigm shift,” Boeh said of the collaborative effort. “There’s 2.5 million acres on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, so there’s plenty of opportunities to have a good, suitable timber base, additions to the wilderness system, something for off-road vehicles and snowmobiles and plenty of fishing, hunting and hiking opportunities. …We should all be able to have a portion if we work together. ”

Since January, he’s been meeting weekly with seven other people with an interest in the North Idaho forests, among them wilderness advocates, loggers and wildlife biologists. The grueling sessions produced a 12-page letter to Mary Farnsworth, supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

The letter comments on a proposed forest plan revision, which will guide management decisions over the next 10 to 15 years. The letter:

• Supports regular logging operations on 38 percent (900,000 acres) of the forest, including increased certainty of timber harvests.

• Supports new wilderness areas and wild and scenic river designations. The group listed Scotchman Peak, the Mallard-Larkins area and the North Fork of the St. Joe River as areas worthy of protection.

• Recommends better inventories of old growth stands and monitoring of old growth-dependent species, such as pileated woodpeckers, flammulated owls and goshawks.

• Supports leaving buffers of trees and shrubs around streams to shade the water and keep it cool for fish.

“We really think this is monumental … it’s been a heavily litigated forest,” said Liz Johnson-Gebhardt, executive director of the Priest Community Forest Connection, one of the letter’s signers. “All these folks worked really hard to reach a consensus.”

The Forest Service received more than 400 public comments on the proposed forest plan revision. All comments are being weighed carefully, but letters representing collaborative work do stand out, said agency spokesman Jason Kirchner. Often, the Forest Service gets caught in the middle of conflicting views for managing federal lands.

“It makes it that much stronger when they come to us with a compromise or a shared vision,” Kirchner said.

Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council, worked on a similar, successful collaboration on Washington’s Colville National Forest before joining the Idaho Panhandle effort. The benefits of reducing land-management conflicts flow both ways, he said.

Parts of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests were logged heavily from the 1960s through the 1980s. Those areas grew back with thickets of grand fir and other shade-tolerant trees. They need to be thinned to increase the trees’ growth rates and reduce wildfire risks, particularly in areas surrounding rural communities, Petersen said.

“We can all agree to that,” he said

The forest plan revision should be complete by the end of the year.

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