From the Opinion Editor

Amid forest health crisis, federal-state partnership speeds up timber sales

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of columns about forest health in Idaho.

Most experts at a recent Idaho Forest Products Commission tour in north Idaho agreed that many parts of Idaho are in a forest health crisis, whether it’s due to years of fire suppression, undertreatment, climate change or a combination of all of the above.

Erin Plue, with Idaho Forest Group, a lumber producer based in Coeur d’Alene, said Idaho is the No. 1 state in the West at risk for insects and disease. For every 1 cubic foot of merchantable wood harvested, 3 cubic feet of trees died in the forest, she said.

In 2006, the tree mortality rate for the first time began to exceed growth in the Intermountain states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and by 2016, forest mortality hit 2 million acres, leading to a net loss of about a quarter-million acres of forests in the Intermountain West.

The 2014 Farm Bill identified 6.1 million acres of Idaho forest land at high risk of mortality.

In Idaho, there are 20 million acres of federal land, of which 10 million acres are designated for

management, while another 10 million acres are completely off limits.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Good Neighbor Authority and Idaho’s shared stewardship program — which we’re going to be hearing about more and more often in the coming months and years as we combat wildfires and the effects of climate change — allows for a collaborative process to accelerate the management of forests.

Jeff Lau, timber management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said the Good Neighbor Authority blurs the lines of ownership of state, federal and private land. After all, a wildfire, the tussock moth or blister rust root disease do not differentiate between land ownership or know where the boundary lies between public and private, state and federal lands. Why should treatment be different?

But treatments do differ, depending on whether the land is state-owned, federal or privately owned.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little, at a Western Governors Association roundtable in Boise this month, said the state already has worked on three timber sales under the Good Neighbor Authority.

This is not to say state assistance in management of federal land would usurp federal policies and the National Environmental Policy Act. Those would all still be in place.

But John Songster, Good Neighbor Authority program manager for the Idaho Department of Lands, said Good Neighbor Authority does speed up the NEPA process a little.

Songster said Good Neighbor Authority allows a state agency to execute work on behalf of a federal agency, using the state process for timber sales. In this case, the Idaho Department of Lands is able to execute timber sales on behalf of the Forest Service on federal forest lands.

Lau, of the Forest Service, cited the example if someone were to leave the Forest Service, the process wouldn’t necessarily grind to a halt just because that person isn’t there any longer and the agency is waiting for a replacement, or if there’s a hiring freeze, for example. The process can continue by relying on expertise from someone in the Idaho Department of Lands.

“It’s an opportunity to look across administrative boundaries to align work for meaningful outcomes and to have a greater lift,” Lau said.

Last year’s Hard Rock timber sale is a good example of the partnership. The sale, on 520 acres about 8 miles north of Priest River on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, used Good Neighbor Authority.

The Forest Service completed the NEPA process and all field preparation. The Idaho Department of Lands prepared the timber sale appraisal, developed the contract and administered the sale.

The Hard Rock timber sale removed fire-intolerant and disease-prone trees and required the planting of more-resilient species such as western larch, Ponderosa pine, and western white pine, according to the Forest Service. The final net value of the sale contract was $2.3 million, more than $938,000 over its starting price.

In some ways, these efforts feel like a race against time.

Plue, with Idaho Forest Group, said at current levels of treatment, it would take 121 years to treat the 6.1 million acres of Idaho forest that are considered at risk for fire, insects or disease.

Even if we were to double the current pace of commercial harvest, it would still take 103 years to treat those 6.1 million acres.

Combining a doubling of commercial harvest with doubling of hazardous fuels treatment (prescribed burning, thinning, limbing and reducing surface and “ladder” fuels) can cut that time to 60 years.

And it is a race against time, as the elephant in the room, of course, is climate change, which makes the problem more severe.

Climate change and its effect on forest health will be the next topic in this series.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.
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