Forest collaboration draws attention, support from Idaho's delegation

Chief Tidwell and Idaho’s delegation join groups from around the state to discuss improvements.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comFebruary 20, 2014 

Days after crews finished logging and thinning a forest north of Salmon in 2012 that had been planned and aided by the Lemhi Forest Collaborative Group, the Mustang Complex Fire burned into the area.

The fire didn’t burn itself out, but the thinned area “provided firefighters with a safe place to work,” said Jenna Knutson, a member of the collaborative from Salmon.

Firefighters were able to protect all the homes and keep the fire from reaching U.S. 93, a major route between Idaho and Montana. The Hughes Creek project also provided jobs and timber — albeit for a mill in Montana, since there is no longer a timber mill in that part of Idaho.

Knutson was one of about 80 local leaders, timber executives, loggers, environmentalists and others who came to Boise Wednesday for a conference on collaboration by the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership. They shared success stories and talked about how to speed up forest restoration.

Already, nine collaborative groups have accounted for 130 million board feet of timber in the pipeline or already cut in the last five years. That success brought Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and all four of Idaho’s congressional delegation to participate.

For Tidwell, who grew up in Boise and attended Capital High School, collaborative groups like these are critical to his efforts to accelerate restoration on the 193 million acres the Forest Service oversees. He spent the entire day listening to recommendations for making his agency more effective and telling people how they can help.

“I need you, the forests need you, the communities need you and, most importantly, future generations will thank you,” Tidwell said.

FARM BILL HELPS

The Farm Bill signed into law in January provided several critical tools for Tidwell and collaborative groups. For Tidwell, the most important is permanent authorization of stewardship contracting, which allows the agency to use money from timber sales for restoration work.

The Forest Service will be able to write contracts to harvest timber, decommission roads, fix wildlife habitat and reduce fire danger for up to 10 years. That gives timber companies, loggers and other contractors enough long-term certainty to make the investments they need to carry out the work. The efforts of collaborative groups of loggers, environmentalists, local officials and timber companies have laid the foundation for even more projects.

Tidwell also pointed to a provision of the Farm Bill that directs governors to identify potential projects 3,000 acres in size where logging and other work can take place under streamlined permitting. These projects have to have collaborative groups behind them and can’t cut old-growth timber.

Managing expectations is part of Tidwell’s challenge. Overall, the Forest Service has 35 percent fewer employees and 49 percent fewer foresters than it had in 2000. They are doing about the same amount of work, but in eight of the past 10 years have had to halt projects in August when fire money ran out.

ANOTHER KEY BILL

That’s why Tidwell praised Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson for introducing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would pull money from an emergency fund instead of forcing the Forest Service to take funds from restoration, recreation and other projects. Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Raul Labrador are co-sponsors and the legislation has bipartisan support in Congress and the administration’s backing.

“We’ve got to start controlling the costs of wildfires if we want to spend money on other things,” said Simpson.

Labrador made the point that the bill is not a jobs program, even though the additional funds will pay for more restoration in rural communities. It is, he said, about “good government.”

Crapo, who has made encouraging collaboration central to his resource policy initiatives, praised the groups for all they had accomplished on the ground.

Despite the successes Tidwell expects more fires as fuels get drier and fire seasons longer.

“There’s no question that climate change is involved,” he said.

But his scientists now tell him that the increased frequency of floods, droughts and extreme weather events are as much of a challenge for forest managers as warming.

“We can’t restore these forests to the past,” Tidwell said. “We have to restore them to the future.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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