New legislation introduced by two Idaho Republicans would expand a controversial federal program that lets states partner with the U.S. Forest Service for forest management projects, allowing tribes and counties to collect revenue from timber sales from public lands.
Proponents say it’s a common-sense fix to correct an oversight in existing law that has denied tribal and county governments an incentive to be part of critical forest management projects. Critics say the program, known as Good Neighbor Authority, is a cynical effort to weaken the federal government’s control of federal lands.
Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents Idaho’s 1st district, unveiled the bill July 1. It would make two relatively simple changes to a law last modified in the 2018 Farm Bill, legislation Congress uses to set national agricultural, conservation and forestry policy every five years. In addition to letting tribes and counties keep revenue generated from timber, it would also allow those funds to be used for forest management projects on nonfederal lands.
“Tribes and counties in Idaho have the authority to decrease their reliance on federal land managers and oversee Idaho’s forests to reduce wildfire risk,” Fulcher said, “but their current financial resources are lacking because they cannot retain receipts like the states.”
Good Neighbor Authority was first introduced in Colorado and Utah in 2000, but the program wasn’t adopted at the national level until 2014. The 2018 Farm Bill gave tribal and county governments the authority to participate in GNA projects, but without the ability to collect revenue, counties and tribes have to reach into their own coffers to cover the costs of environmental reviews and other necessary steps.
“Idaho has long been a leader on conservation and collaboration, and Good Neighbor Authority is no exception,” said Risch. “Congress made the decision to extend GNA to tribes and counties in 2018, and we owe it to them to do so correctly. This legislation gives all GNA partners the greatest ability to implement restoration efforts and reduce wildfire risk.”
But Mike Garrity, executive director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said states, counties and tribes don’t have the resources the federal government does to ensure GNA projects don’t harm endangered species and the environment. He also worries the program puts public lands in the wrong hands.
“The problem is that in a lot of these counties, the county commissioners don’t think the federal government should own any land,” Garrity said. “So you’re really putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director at the nonprofit Idaho Conservation League, emphasized that states, tribes and counties still have to comply with the same federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and the National Forest Management Act. While his organization hasn’t taken a position on the bill, he cautioned that “it may be premature to move forward with an expansion when we haven’t seen the effects of existing Good Neighbor Authority projects.”
Cody Desautel, natural resources director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, countered the idea that tribes don’t have the resources or expertise to take on GNA projects, which he said could have major benefits for the Colville Tribes.
“Obviously, tribes have lots of need at home, and spending tribal dollars to do work on adjacent federal lands – when they’re funded at three times per acre what the tribes are – is a pretty tough sell to tribal leadership,” Desautel said. “What this gives us the ability to do is retain those receipts for future planning and NEPA costs so there’s really no net cost to the tribe once you have that initial project in the books and have some receipts sitting in an account to spend on the future. So really it (is) a cost-prohibitive thing for tribes without this mechanism.”
The ancestral lands of the 12 Colville Tribes span from what is now northeastern Oregon well into British Columbia. Chairman Rodney Cawston stressed the importance of lands outside the present-day reservation boundaries and said the tribes “have always managed the landscape, even before contact.”
“Even though they may be physically off the reservation, those areas are still our areas, those are areas that our people came from, and we still go back to those areas and we still live with the devastation if they are poorly managed,” he said. “And so this (legislation) gives us that opportunity to take care of that landscape. We have the expertise almost as any other federal or state or county government does. We have many science professionals on our reservation as well as our elder people that still have a lot of the traditional ecological knowledge.”
Tom Schultz, vice president of government affairs at the Idaho Forest Group, a Coeur d’Alene-based lumber company, said the GNA program is an essential tool to help the state deal with dead trees and other fuels that can exacerbate wildfires.
According to a 2014 Forest Service report, Idaho ranked worst in the nation with 28% of its forests at risk of dying within 15 years. Pests like the Douglas-fir tussock moth have caused significant damage to forests in the Inland Northwest.
“Good Neighbor Authority is critically important in my mind in order to help the Forest Service, and basically the nation, to meet its goals in addressing the forest health crisis, particularly in the West,” Schultz said.
GNA projects extend beyond removing trees and include watershed restoration, road repair and noxious weed removal, but a major focus is on guarding against fires that don’t abide by borders separating federal, state and tribal land. Cawston estimated that a 2015 wildfire destroyed one-third of the Colville Tribes’ commercial forest, an important source of revenue for the confederation.
Despite being relatively new, the GNA program has grown rapidly, with timber sales from GNA projects more than tripling from 2018 to 2019, from 22 to 89 million board feet, according to Jon Songster, GNA bureau chief at the Idaho Department of Lands. Songster said his department’s GNA program has generated over $4.3 million from those sales, which is used for restoration work in national forests and to offset the department’s personnel and operating costs.
Songster touted the program’s ability to pool resources to get urgent work done, but Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director at Friends of the Clearwater, a Moscow-based grassroots public lands conservation group, called GNA “a first step toward stealing the national forests away from the public.”
“It’s just the Sagebrush Rebellion with some paint on it,” Macfarlane said, referring to the movement in the 1970s and ’80s advocating more state and local control over federal lands. “If it were about efficiency, you’d just have one agency doing it.”
In August 2019, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Forest Service to stop a GNA project at Hanna Flats, part of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest near Nordman, alleging the project violated federal law. Garrity’s group has argued the planned tree removal constitutes clear-cutting and would harm a threatened grizzly bear population. That litigation is ongoing.
While he would not comment on the specifics of lawsuits, Songster said the groups mistake “regeneration harvests,” where some healthy trees are left standing, for clear-cutting, which he said is rarely used in GNA projects.
Macfarlane rejected regeneration harvests as a euphemism and called the Idaho Department of Lands “a maximum-revenue-generating agency,” contrasting it with the Forest Service’s multiple-land-use mission.
But he acknowledged that tribal leaders like Cawston are right to be frustrated that their governments are excluded from a program states benefit from.
“As a matter of equity, if the point he’s making is, ‘If the states get to do this, why don’t we?’ then he’s right.”
“If there are needs that the tribes have, then they should be addressed through a different mechanism,” Macfarane said. “This one, it wasn’t designed to address tribal issues. It was designed, I think, very cynically, to devolve authority away from the federal government.”
The fate of the bill in Congress is not immediately clear, but with its introduction, Fulcher and Risch have drawn attention to an issue with major implications for public lands.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on July 16, 2020, to correct that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit to stop a GNA project near Nordman in August 2019. The story previously referred incorrectly to another project near Avery, the target of a May 2020 lawsuit, which is not a GNA project.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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