Idaho gets behind forest restoration plan

Otter submits 50 projects to feds to use timber killed by bugs, disease

rbarker@idahostatesman.comApril 5, 2014 

The projects sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have wide support in Idaho and qualify for streamlined approval under the new farm bill, Gov. Butch Otter says.

The projects cover 1.7 million acres of national forest land, including parts of the Boise National Forest northwest of Banks and around Bogus Basin. The proposal comes as talks continue on reopening a lumber mill in Emmett, and it might give backers another push to get the mill open.

"The (governor) and the Idaho Department of Lands deserve credit for taking quick action to meet the short 60-day deadline," said Will Whelan, pubic affairs director for The Nature Conservancy of Idaho. "The state reached out to Idaho-based collaborative groups and to the Forest Service."

Many of the projects identified by Otter have been vetted by groups made up of timber company foresters, environmentalists and others.

Idaho has 20 million acres of national forest. Of the 12.6 million acres outside of wilderness and other protective designations, Otter's plan identifies 8.8 million acres that qualify as high-risk for insect infestation, disease and fire.

"The condition of the national forests in Idaho is grave," Otter wrote.

The farm bill that President Barack Obama signed in February requires Vilsack to grant a governor's request to establish one or more landscape "treatment areas" of up to 3,000 acres for forests affected by insects or invasive species.

To win approval, the rules require that collaborative efforts be in place, old-growth timber be protected and wilderness study areas be avoided.

Projects that receive such designation are in line for federal money and stewardship contracts to pay for restoration. Plus, the Forest Service may streamline project approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, making the environmental review easier and the projects harder to challenge in court.

Otter's ambitious plan came after his staff and Idaho Department of Lands officials met with the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, a statewide group that coordinates collaborative efforts in Idaho. The Department of Lands drew up the list.

MONEY COULD BE ISSUE

If the Forest Service is able to follow through on approving, funding and carrying out the 50 projects, it "should serve as an example for future designation of additional landscape areas that move toward restoring forest resiliency across the national forest system in Idaho," Otter said.

Though Congress has authorized the farm bill, it has not appropriated the additional money to pay to analyze the projects, conduct the streamlined public involvement and complete the project contracting, said Dale Deiter, acting deputy supervisor for the Boise National Forest. Many of the projects won't pay for themselves with the sale of the timber being cut.

But Congress has funded other programs - including the Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program - that could provide money.

Many of the projects fall under the 3,000-acre limit. But others, such as a 60,000-acre restoration project near Banks that the Forest Service is studying with the Boise Forest Coalition, might qualify under other farm bill provisions, Deiter said.

"That's only one ... of our options under the (bill)," he said.

One of the organizers of Idaho's forest collaboration movement downplayed the significance of the proposed projects.

Boise resident Rick Tholen, a representative of the Society of American Foresters, said the 3,000-acre projects aimed at treating areas hit by insects and disease leave out other necessary restoration work, such as decommissioning roads and improving fish passage and water quality.

That's why the Payette Forest Coalition chose to exclude from the list its upcoming work, including the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Landscape Restoration project near New Meadows. The project will produce timber while closing 117 miles of unneeded forest roads and repairing 40 culverts to reduce erosion and improve bull trout passage in Lost Creek.

NEW LIFE FOR MILL?

The additional tools and strong support from environmental groups to harvest more timber in the region should help efforts to reopen the Emerald Forest Products mill.

It was rebuilt in 2009 with financing from the federal stimulus bill, but it was not able to open before its investor went bankrupt.

New investors are looking at the former Boise Cascade site, either to complete rebuilding the mill or replace it, Forest Service and Idaho Department of Lands officials said.

The Otter proposal could help that effort, said David Groeschl, Idaho state forester.

"I am hopeful that somebody will end up purchasing and running that Emmett mill," he said.

Another Idaho mill would make the timber market more competitive and increase the affordability of restoration projects in the region, he said. Today, there is just one mill in Southern Idaho, the Tamarack mill near Council. It and Boise Cascade's mill in Elgin, Ore., are the only bidders for local projects.

Tholen said that the 40 million board feet of timber expected to come out of the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek project also could boost prospects for the mill.

"The path to success lies in ensuring that the Forest Service uses these new tools on projects that are broadly supported, science-based and targeted in places where they will do the most good," said Whelan.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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