Letters from the West

Loggers, enviros partner on Idaho forest projects. Their main obstacle is now money

Loggers are racing wood-boring insects and decay to salvage as much timber as they can from the 190,000 acres that burned across the Boise National Forest in last year’s Pioneer Fire, before the wood loses its worth.

The U.S. Forest Service planned to harvest 70 million board feet of timber from about 7 percent of the area burned in the massive wildfire. But insects, fungi and rot have deteriorated the standing trees so much that it will be lucky if it can get 50 million to 60 million board feet, said Brant Peterson, Idaho City District ranger.

“I’ve never seen it so bad in 58 years,” said Roger Jackson, a Boise County commissioner and a logger cutting blackened trees near Edna Creek.

Nevertheless, the salvage logging has put to work every available logger, logging truck and piece of harvest equipment in the region since July. The Forest Service hopes to keep them working through next season. At times, workers haven’t been able to find enough trucks to haul the wood to the Boise Cascade mill in Elgin, Oregon.

“We’re still short,” Jackson said Friday.

The Pioneer Fire salvage project is a window into the state of current forest management across the West.

The drop in timber harvests over the past 20 years — caused by concerns over water quality, endangered species, roadless protection and lumber imports from Canada — has reduced the industry’s capacity to cut, haul and process timber across Southern Idaho. Mills closed in Cascade, Horseshoe Bend and Emmett, though a new mill has just opened in Emmett and another mill in Tamarack, west of New Meadows, has expanded its capacity.

Through collaboration, the Forest Service and other federal agencies are getting timber plans done more quickly, and the plans hold up more often in court. These projects are creating jobs and economic activity in rural communities like Idaho City.

Lawsuits and appeals are no longer what hold up timber projects. The problem instead is money.

Congress continues to cut agency budgets that provide the seed money necessary to fund timber sales and restoration projects. And current federal law requires the Forest Service to rob dollars budgeted for restoration and fire-prevention logging, to pay for fighting megafires like the Pioneer Fire, caused by the hotter, drier and longer fire seasons of climate change.

The Forest Service completed its Pioneer Fire environmental review in July, seven months after the fire went out. The agency worked closely with local officials, conservation groups, the timber industry, and with recreation interests who use the burned area 30 miles east of Boise for hunting, camping, skiing and driving ATVs.

Under the banner of the Boise Forest Coalition, these groups helped the Forest Service write a restoration plan that will use the proceeds from the salvage logging to pay for a variety of projects. On the list are efforts to protect and restore water quality in the South Fork Payette River and area streams; limit erosion; and reopen trails, roads and campgrounds.

This approach put loggers and conservation groups like the Idaho Conservation League on the same side as they helped the cash-strapped agency write up a plan that would meet environmental laws. So when other environmental groups like Wildlands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council sued to halt the project, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill allowed the logging to continue, noting in November the coalition’s approval of the project.

“We all want to see a healthy forest and clean water and appreciate that the court agreed that the project should move forward,” said Alan Ward, chairman of the Boise County Commission and a member of the coalition.

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Logging operations continue near Lowman on a portion of the 190,000 acres burned by the 2016 Pioneer Fire in the Boise National Forest. Joe Jaszewski jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

The groups that filed the lawsuit will have another hearing in January. But Winmill said in his decision they were unlikely to win on the merits of their challenge.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would eliminate much of the environmental review timber projects face. Other legislation addresses the fire funding issue that has forced the Forest Service to pull its already limited staff off of completing environmental reviews to fight fires.

Jackson, the logger and commissioner, would like to see Congress completely get rid of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which requires the reviews. But his partner on the job, Todd Niehoff of Stanley, didn’t think that’s necessary, and he pointed to the Pioneer sales as an example.

“Everything came together,” Niehoff said.

He said collaborative groups have improved the permitting process, and he credited Boise National Forest officials for their ability to get work done fast. Other national forests are still learning, he said.

Statewide, four timber projects endorsed by collaborative groups over the past two years have later been challenged in court, and all four held up. Fuels treatment in Idaho rose from 53,000 acres in 2016 to 79,000 acres in 2017.

Part of the reason for success has been the use of “Good Neighbor” authority by the state of Idaho. Using a state fund, state foresters prepare timber sales after the Forest Service completes environmental reviews. This has increased how many projects can be offered even as federal staffs become smaller.

“That’s why the Good Neighbor Authority has been a godsend to the Forest Service,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League, also a member of the Boise Forest Coalition.

The heavy snow over Christmas will make it harder for loggers to get into the woods. That will give the insects and fungi an advantage and reduce the amount of wood salvaged from the Pioneer burned area, one of the state’s most-used outdoor recreation destinations.

“Every day, a percent of the value decreases,” forest ranger Peterson said.

Popular roads, trails and backcountry yurts have already reopened. The landscape, however, will not return to the condition it was before 64 days of intense heat and record dryness transformed the place Idahoans love.

“It will never be the same again,” Peterson said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker