There’s growing consensus that something must be done on federal lands to improve the health of our forests and rural communities. To that end, collaboration is commonly touted as the model for resolving controversial issues in federal forest management. The Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Landscape Restoration Project (LCBC) on the Payette National Forest is an example of what can go right — and wrong — when successful collaboration collides with broken federal forest policies.
As a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act project, the LCBC should be a model of how the “restoration economy” can create more rural jobs. The project was developed by the Payette Forest Coalition, a collaborative representing diverse stakeholders including local government leaders and citizens, the forest products industry, and conservation groups such as The Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League. Their efforts have helped increase timber sales while enabling a local mill to add a second shift. The sales have raised $6 million to fund forest restoration work on the Payette.
In the case of the LCBC, an agreement existed to restore an 80,000-acre forest to improve watershed health, wildlife habitat and resiliency to wildfire. There was also recognition that restoration work should contribute to the economic vitality in nearby communities. Ultimately, the coalition endorsed a plan that includes timber harvesting and thinning, trail maintenance, off-road vehicle use, and the maintenance and decommissioning of forest roads.
The collaborative’s agreement did not come without the investment of considerable time and effort. On the LCBC, members participated in a five-hour meeting every month and other committee meetings over the course of a year. Individuals contributed an estimated 15 to 20 days a year, or three to four weeks of their time, to make this project happen. Their consensus enabled the U.S. Forest Service to complete the environmental review process and move the project toward implementation. The final Record of Decision was signed on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014.
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Unfortunately outside environmental groups are suing the Forest Service in a misguided effort to stop the project. Under current law these groups can obstruct and delay timber harvests and forest restoration projects even if they are the product of extensive, expensive, and time-consuming collaboration. By winning over a minor quibble or even by settling, they can force the government to give them taxpayer dollars to “reimburse” them for using attorneys to further their obstructionist agenda. The future of the LCBC is now uncertain.
What is going on with the LCBC is the latest example of why we need comprehensive reforms to address the “analysis paralysis” and constant litigation threats that undermine the management of our forests. The Resilient Federal Forests Act — HR2647 — would streamline the process for implementing collaborative projects and make it more difficult for outside groups to obstruct them through litigation. It would give the Forest Service “categorical exclusion” authority under the National Environmental Policy Act to expedite collaborative projects up to 15,000 acres, allowing eligible projects to be implemented in months, not years. HR2647 is expected to receive a vote in the full U.S. House of Representatives, and we encourage our congressional delegation to support the bill.
If collaboration is truly the model of the future, it’s time for the federal government to promote the status of local stakeholder groups to ensure their decisions are implemented. As long as outside groups are free to lie in the weeds and then litigate and obstruct, collaboration will be marginalized and the health of our forests and rural communities will increasingly suffer.
Mike Paradis is an Adams County commissioner and Gordon Cruickshank is a Valley County commissioner.