May 23–In its effort to increase the pace of forest restoration across the country, the U.S. Forest Service has identified 45 million acres in need of treatment to address insect and disease infestations and the threat of wildfire.
The designations include 1.8 million acres in Idaho and 423,000 acres on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. The priority area designations were proposed by governors in 35 states under new authority in the latest federal farm bill.
Each of the 50 areas proposed by Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter were approved by the Forest Service. Gov. Jay Inslee has requested more time to submit areas in Washington.
A provision in the farm bill gives the Forest Service more flexibility to design and implement treatment projects like logging and prescribed burning in areas where insects like Western pine beetle, diseases like root rot, invasive plants like spotted knapweed and the buildup of fuels threaten forest health. The agency is tasked to work collaboratively with stakeholders as it seeks ways to mitigate identified problems.
“Working with local partners to combat insect and disease infestation has long been one of our top priorities, and this new authority gives us additional tools to implement landscape-scale projects,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service. “We will continue our commitment to involve the public as we develop and implement projects in these areas.”
On the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, five project areas were selected for the designation: Elk River Fuels on the Palouse Ranger District, Selway-Middle Fork on the Moose Creek District, Elk City West on the Red River District and Grangeville South and Riggins West, both on the Salmon River District.
As forest managers work to design projects to address the problems, they will be able to use shorter environmental review procedures, include fewer treatment alternatives in their planning and in some cases use categorical exclusions on projects up to 3,000 acres, said Forest Service spokeswoman Tiffany Holloway at Washington, D.C.
Categorical exclusions are procedures that permit the agency to do less environmental documentation than is normally allowed and to reduce the public’s ability to challenge agency decisions.
“The Forest Service must continue to comply with existing laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Historic Preservation Act as well as agency regulations that affect the designated areas such as the roadless rules,” Holloway said.
To the extent it helps the Forest Service become more active in managing forests and addressing problems, Clearwater County Commission Chairman Don Ebert welcomes the new authorities.
Ebert is a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a citizens’ group made up of people representing diverse interests that is trying to find common ground on local forest management issues.
“I think the language in the farm bill is a good start. I think there needs to be a whole bunch more of it,” he said. “I think it’s a little indication of the nation’s willingness to take a different look at how we do things in the forests and I think people are beginning to realize we need to mange our forests or we are going to have just a horrible mess in the end if we don’t.”
Ebert said he joined the collaborative, which seeks to balance management with conservation, to push for more logging in appropriate areas.
“That is my goal and it always has been,” he said.
Some environmental groups are unhappy with the new authorities under the farm bill. Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director of the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater, said the new authorities cut the public out of public land management.
“It’s all done behind the public’s back and I think that says it all,” he said. “These are public lands, they are national forests. They are not private committee forests. It could result in reduced water quality, less habitat for fish and poor wildlife habitat.”
However, Macfarlane said much of the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest is home to threatened or endangered species like wild steelhead and salmon, Canada lynx and bull trout, which could preclude the agency from using categorical exclusions.
“If the Forest Service does what they are supposed to do and looks at other environmental laws,” he said. “I don’t know if they can do categorical exclusions because of the threatened and endangered species we have.”
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.