Josh Newman, US Forest Service, talks about the Pioneer Fire and its impact on recreation and forest health.
The landscape that collects and holds the rain and snow that is perched above a flooding Boise River has seen its share of extremes over the past year.
For 64 days in 2016, there was no rain in the Boise National Forest as the Pioneer Fire burned nearly 190,000 acres in three directions from its start southwest of Idaho City, sometimes cooking so intensively that it left little but ash. When stoked by high winds, it raced through 30,000-acre swaths of forest a day, staying in the canopies of tall ponderosa pines and leaving the ground only lightly singed.
“So now we’re going in right after the fire, into a record-setting snowpack, with what appears to be a really wet spring,” said Brant Peterson, Idaho City District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. “All of that has to come down out of that fire. We’re just hoping that the mud floods won’t be severe.”
Even before fall snow put the fire out last year, Peterson and John Kidd, his counterpart in the Lowman District, were overseeing rehabilitation projects to prevent landslides, mud flows and severe erosion. Such events can take out the roads that are major recreation arteries into the places Treasure Valley residents go to camp, collect mushrooms, hike, hunt, fish or ride off-road vehicles.
The Forest Service has had crews clearing burned trees from along roads and in campgrounds that, if left, present a hazard to visitors. And now it is preparing to take its biggest step: It has released for public comment two sets of plans for a series of restoration measures and timber salvage sales already backed by a group of local officials, timber industry representatives, conservation groups and motorized users in the Boise Forest Coalition.
The Forest Service proposes to log 70 million board feet of timber over the next two years and replant more than 6,000 of the most damaged acres with mostly ponderosa pine. Salvage logging has been a controversial practice for decades, sometimes seen as an excuse to log quickly with shortened environmental review.
Burned trees must be harvested and processed within a year of the fire to be valuable as lumber, requiring the Forest Service to conduct its environmental review rapidly.
Historically, the Forest Service justified salvage projects by saying that the logging improved the heath of the forest. Peterson and Kidd aren’t trying to make that case. Instead, the logging is being promoted because it provides wood for the new local timber mill in Emmett and employment for loggers and truckers in Boise County and Emmett.
The sales also mean money to pay for the rehabilitation, too.
“It also gives us the ability to have some funding for the reforestation and other things, like culvert replacement,” said Kidd. “If we didn’t do this salvage right away, we would probably be dealing with this for the next 20 years. (Restoration) takes manpower and that takes funding, which we might not have down the road.”
REDUCING THE HAZARDS
Many of the trees to be harvested are near roads and trails and are considered a hazard to the traveling and recreating public. If not cut now, those hazards might last 10 years.
Morris Huffman, a forest consultant who served on the Boise Forest Coalition, said uncut burned trees could fall and close corridors like Clear Creek Road for years. Clear Creek provides access to Bear Valley Creek, one of the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River popular with campers, hunters and anglers.
“If we don’t log this now, Clear Creek Road could be closed for years,” he said.
With the right logging done immediately, Kidd said: “We won’t have to worry about downfall and trees falling across the road behind people. When we do the roadside salvage, it will be a long-term treatment so we don’t have to go back in there every year.”
The salvage projects are divided into two environmental reviews, one for the north section of the fire along the Payette and Deadwood rivers, and one for the south in the watersheds of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Boise River. In addition to logging and tree planting, the projects include decommissioning and removing unneeded roads; thinning overgrown forests; trail work; spraying to control noxious weeds; road maintenance; and water quality-improvement projects such as culverts and water bars.
LOGGING OR LEAVING
The proposed logging gets the most attention. When fires burned through parts of the Boise National Forest in 2014, Gov. Butch Otter was critical of the agencies for leaving so much federal timber left to rot.
The reality then was just one sawmill was interested in the wood, and it was 200 miles away in Elgin, Ore., and had limited capacity, Forest Service officials said. Since then, Woodgrain Millworks has opened a sawmill in Emmett and has welcomed the supply.
“We’re very interested in making sure the Forest Service does a good job of restoring these acres back into productivity, so the sawmills can stay healthy in Southern Idaho,” said John Roberts, Boise County’s emergency management director.
Not everyone is eager to see such aggressive action following the fire. There is ecological value in leaving the forest alone after a burn. The Northwest forest ecosystem evolved in fire, and bird species like black-backed woodpeckers, for example, rely heavily on snag trees left standing after a burn.
Jeff Juel, an environmental consultant from Missoula, Mont., who works for environmental groups that oppose salvage sales, argues that the less done after a fire, the more resilient the area is to future disturbances. He opposes the agency’s emergency declarations justified by the need to sell timber to help the local mill and workers. He wants a full environmental review instead of the shortened one the Forest Service is doing.
Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League, agrees with Juel on the overall benefits of allowing natural renewal following a fire. But he’s a member of the Boise Forest Coalition and worked closely with partners like Roberts and the Forest Service to “make sure that those high-quality and sensitive resources are protected.”
He said he supports the logging to make the hazard trees safer and for the economic benefits it creates.
Juel isn’t persuaded.
“Just because a conservation group is involved,” he said, “doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest.”
How to comment
▪ Comment on the south environmental assessment at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50694
▪ Comment on the north environmental assessment at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50789