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

Most trees on CdA’s dike road will remain

A cyclist takes advantage of the warm weather while pedaling along the dike road in Coeur d'Alene on Tuesday.  (Kathy Plonka)

There’s good news for folks who enjoy strolling through the filtered light from towering pines along Coeur d’Alene’s Rosenberry Drive.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has changed its policy related to trees on flood-control levees, saying the trees’ presence won’t jeopardize a community’s ability to qualify for disaster relief funds.

“This is huge,” said Gordon Dobler, the city’s engineer.

City officials had planned to apply for a variance to keep many of the trees on what’s known locally as the dike road, a levee separating Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River from North Idaho College and the Fort Grounds neighborhood. But the corps’ shift in policy simplifies matters for the city, Dobler said.

Some of the trees will still come out. More than 1,000 trees were inventoried by experts and roughly 360 were identified as dead or unhealthy. But even after the thinning, big ponderosas will remain to frame views of the waterfront, Dobler said.

In addition to the ambience they provide, the trees are important ecologically for fish and wildlife habitat, said Adrienne Cronebaugh, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance.

“This is a big win not only for our trees locally, but for so many miles of shoreline across the nation,” she said. “People were so outraged because there was no logic” behind the corps’ mandate.

Two years ago, Coeur d’Alene was among dozens of Western communities caught off guard when Army Corps officials said all trees on levees had to go. After Hurricane Katrina, the agency updated its national levee standards, saying that trees and bushes were hazardous to levees because they could be uprooted during storms and their roots could undermine the structures. Only grass was allowed to remain.

Communities that flouted the Army Corps’s new standards risked having their levee certification revoked. That meant they couldn’t apply for federal disaster funds for levee repairs in the event of flooding. The loss of levee certification also created problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sets flood insurance rates.

The new standards led to protests and a 2011 lawsuit by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the River. Opponents argued that the Army Corps’ own research showed that trees can help stabilize levees and reduce erosion.

In an interim policy adopted last month, the Army Corps changed course. Trees on levees won’t disqualify flood-control districts from securing federal aid. Vegetation ratings on levees will be informational only, corps officials said in the policy revision, which is expected to become permanent.

In Coeur d’Alene, trees targeted for removal have been marked with a green dot, Dobler said. Fall is the earliest the thinning would occur. The city has to work within federal rules for protecting nesting sites for migratory birds.

The city has hired Ruen Yeager and Associates of Coeur d’Alene, Anderson Perry of Yakima and GeoEngineers of Spokane to assess the structural integrity of the flood-control levee, which was built in 1940. The $500,000 re-certification study has identified several areas of the levee that need to be reinforced or replaced, Dobler said.

The consultants will submit a report to the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in about three weeks, recommending actions that should be taken to keep the levee’s federal certification current.