By Liz Johnson-Gebhardt and Mike Petersen
The management of our national forest lands isn’t without its controversies, but a cooperative effort of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF) and the Panhandle Forest Collaborative (PFC) illustrates that reasonable people are capable of finding common ground on these issues.
Formed in 2010, the PFC is a group of representatives of the timber industry, environmental groups, motorized recreation, non-motorized recreation and wildlife managers. The vision of the PFC is to assist agencies by bringing balanced approaches to timber, wild ecosystems and recreation, and to contribute to the sustainable social, environmental and economic viability of our region.
The PFC focuses on issues on the IPNF, primarily within the Sandpoint and Priest Lake ranger districts, and a portion of the Coeur d’Alene Ranger District. The goals of the PFC include promoting sustainable forest management, enhancing recreation opportunities, maintaining forest products infrastructure, conserving native ecosystems and reducing litigation. The PFC works to build consensus recommendations for projects and forest plans that address these goals.
The IPNF’s five-year action plan calls for developing and implementing a project along the southeast side of Lake Pend Oreille. The purpose of the Chloride Gold Project is to reduce the threat of wildfire to local residents living in the community of Lakeview, improve forest health, restore underrepresented tree species, improve fish and wildlife habitat, decrease sources of stream sediment, control noxious weeds, improve recreation opportunities and benefit the local economy.
In order to achieve these objectives, the Forest Service proposed approximately 9,000 acres of timber harvest; 2,800 acres of precommercial thinning; 5,400 acres of prescribed fire; 10 miles of road decommissioning; 24 miles of new road construction; 34 miles of trail work; and elimination of fish passage barriers.
When the IPNF announced its project proposal for Chloride Gold, the PFC recognized the importance of reducing the threat of fire to the community of Lakeview. Fires have been suppressed in our area for decades and, consequently, fuel loads are so high that it would be difficult for wildland firefighters to protect the community unless the Forest Service takes steps to thin the forests around the community.
The PFC also recognized that the scale of timber harvest and the amount of road construction proposed could negatively impact water quality, bull trout spawning habitat in Gold Creek and a rare population of plants called clustered lady’s slipper. The PFC will be working together on recommendations to reduce and mitigate these impacts.
Fortunately, members of the PFC have spent several years building trust with one another and knew that it would be possible to strike a balance between the environmental concerns associated with the Chloride Gold Project and the need to respond to the fire danger and forest health concerns. Bull trout spawning surveys were used to identify areas where streams should have greater buffers from timber harvest than would normally be required. The PFC similarly recommended buffering sites where clustered lady’s slipper are found.
Water quality was also an important issue that the PFC addressed. Hydrological studies have shown that if you harvest too much timber in a watershed at once, you can cause runoff to spike drastically, sending heavy loads of sediment down a stream. Too much timber harvest at once can also cause the snow to melt off earlier than normal, which can lead to lower stream flows in the summer and warmer water temperatures. In response, the PFC recommended that the Forest Service stage the proposed timber harvest out over a twenty-year time frame so that the initial logging units have time to grow back before another suite of units are logged.
The Chloride Gold Project area is also a popular recreation destination. Many of the motorcycle and ATV trails in the area are in a state of disrepair, which is affecting water quality and user enjoyment. Many trails will be rerouted and repaired to address these problems. The Gold Creek Lodge has also expressed an interest in working with the Forest Service to reign in the resource damage that is being caused by “off-roading” in that area and educate recreationists about the need to stay on roads and trails. A new non-motorized trail to the top of Packsaddle Mountain is also being considered.
It’s easy to criticize the Forest Service for its management of our forests, but we must keep in mind that the agency is often placed in the untenable position of having to reconcile competing public values and interests. The Forest Service and our national forest lands benefit when diverse groups like the PFC are able to find common ground. Collaborative forest management is a model that can help create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Liz Johnson-Gebhardt and Mike Petersen are co-chairs of the Panhandle Forest Collaborative.
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