After 15 years of deliberations, the U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday it has approved a management plan for the Colville National Forest that creates about 61,000 acres of new protected wilderness area – significantly less than environmentalists had hoped for.
The Forest Service said the plan is expected to improve recreation access and create more than 200 jobs by allowing for increased timber production.
“The revised plan prioritizes rural prosperity, treatment of fire-prone forests, forest access and healthy watersheds,” the agency said in a news release.
The announcement of the plan’s approval had been expected since July. It came as a blow to groups that called for more recommended wilderness area. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which represented environmental, industrial and recreation interests, originally asked for more than 200,000 acres.
The coalition included Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and the Spokane-based Lands Council. About a year ago, those groups said they had been blindsided when the Forest Service unveiled the forest management plan, effectively ignoring years of deliberations and compromises.
Forest Service officials have said they needed to strike a compromise with those who opposed expanding the forest’s wilderness areas, including cattle ranchers and county commissioners in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.
The Colville National Forest has one federally designated wilderness area – the 41,335-acre Salmo-Priest Wilderness – which represents about 3% of the 1.1 million-acre forest. Such areas must be designated by an act of Congress, although the Forest Service can create “recommended” wilderness areas with lighter restrictions on activities such as tree thinning and mineral leasing.
Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, said he’s disappointed but hopeful as environmental groups continue working with local officials on fire planning, road maintenance and grazing issues around the forest.
“What we really want to do is find common ground,” Petersen said.