A fine line on Idaho's public lands

State leaders agree they want active management in federal forests, but the approaches are different

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 7, 2013 

Ask U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo where the discussion on managing Idaho's federal lands should start, and he doesn't hesitate.

"Collaboration," said Crapo, a Republican who has championed bringing Idaho ranchers, loggers and motorized recreationists together with environmentalists to find compromise.

Crapo met with members of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative group Wednesday in Lewiston to discuss the next step now that they have reached a broad agreement on how to manage the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest - all 4 million acres of it.

Timber companies, county officials, the Nez Perce Tribe, recreation groups, sportsmen, and conservation groups agreed to a work plan that includes increasing logging and other active management.

Also in the plan are additional federal wilderness and Wild Rivers designations on the national forest in north-central Idaho that is popular for recreation.

"I think the CBC is the most prominent collaborative effort in the country," Crapo said.

Republican state Rep. Lawerence Denney remains unconvinced.

He sponsored a resolution in the Idaho Legislature, patterned after a similar bill in Utah, that demanded the federal government turn over all of the 34 million acres of federal land within Idaho - 64 percent of the state's land mass. He co-chairs an interim committee of the Legislature examining whether to follow Utah's lead.

The panel will meet at the Capitol from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

"Whether we gain title or we don't is secondary," Denney said. "I hope that we can come to some solution that can benefit the resource."

He and many Idahoans seek to solve the dramatic drop in timber harvest and the thousands of jobs lost over the past 30 years in the timber industry. They blame the millions of acres burned by wildfire over the past two decades on the lack of active management to reduce fuels.

"My problem with the collaboration is it's like raindrops in the ocean - it's not doing enough to solve the problem," Denney said.

Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society in Boise said Denney and other critics of collaboration haven't been paying attention to how his group's talks with the timber industry have delivered. His and other environmental groups don't see the fires being as destructive as lawmakers do, but they support active management to forward ecological goals.

The Forest Service increased its active management budget on the forest because of the dialogue created by the collaborative, participants say, and the agency is working toward a 50 percent annual increase in the timber harvest.

The Forest Service, backed by Crapo and the collaborative group, is three years into a 10-year restoration program for 1.4 million acres along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and the Selway. The project is expected to harvest up to 150 million board feet of timber and create or maintain 390 jobs. Other actions include treating weeds, aquatic habitat restoration projects, trail improvements and controlled fire use.

In 2012 alone, the collaborative created or maintained 127 jobs, restored 13,166 acres of wildlife habitat and improved 256 miles of road.

"We're happy with the progress," said Bill Higgins, a resource manager in Grangeville for the Idaho Forest Group, a timber company with mills across North Idaho. "The job is far from done. We've got a lot of work to do."

The Clearwater is not the only collaborative in the state. The Payette Forest Coalition helped get the Forest Service to approve the harvest of 8.3 million board feet and a $1 million contract to improve forest roads in the Council area.

Other collaborative groups are getting active in the Boise National Forest, around Salmon and north in Bonners Ferry.

"There's been a dramatic change in approach for many mainstream environmental groups towards federal forest management in Idaho, and it's past time that our leaders recognized this change," said Rick Tholen, a consulting forester and one of the founders of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, which promotes collaboration.

Crapo said the participation of people from many different interest groups has expanded support for a comprehensive program that addresses all of their needs, not only timber harvest. It helps build the trust that replaces conflict.

"If we are going to expect capital investment in any aspects of the economy, whether timber or recreation in the area, there has to be an element of certainty," Crapo said.

Gary MacFarlane, of the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater, is happy with the status quo.

"We already have a process to make decisions on the public lands. We go through the National Environmental Policy Act and everyone is on the same footing," MacFarlane said.

But lawsuits and appeals from groups such as MacFarlane's are the major reason the Forest Service can't get anything done quickly, said Skip Brandt, an Idaho County commissioner.

He also supports the state efforts to take over federal land and a separate bill by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador that would allow the state to manage some federal timber lands, with the proceeds going to rural counties for roads and schools.

"I'm looking under every possible rock to save my county, save Idaho and save the United States," Brandt said.

Denney's resolution makes reference to the Utah lawsuit's premise for the state land demand - that it would sell the land and use 95 percent of the proceeds to pay off the national debt. But he and other lawmakers say that's not in their plans.

"I certainly don't want to sell off the public lands. I just want to see them actively managed," he said.

His interim committee co-chairman, Republican state Sen. Chuck Winder, said the Utah approach will be studied along with others over a 16-month period.

"A majority of Idahoans are going to be worried about their camp spot, their hunting access and fishing access," Winder said. "We're going to have to take all those things into consideration and provide a balanced approach that can be supported by the public."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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