From the nursery to the lumber mill: Tour outlines Idaho forest challenges, opportunities

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

Idaho forests are one of the state’s great legacies. But protecting that legacy is a more ambitious task than most realize.

From wildfires to invading insects to disease, the woodlands face threats on several fronts. Detailing those threats — as well as possible solutions — is the raison d’être for the Miracle At Work Forest Tour.

Rows upon rows of seedlings at the U.S. Forest Service Coeur d’Alene Nursery ready themselves for life in the wild.

A tour based in the forests and lumber facilities of the Coeur d’Alene area, the Miracle At Work Forest Tour is designed to identify the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho’s forest resources and their connection to recreation, conservation and industry. The tour is hosted by Idaho Forest Products Commission, a state legislature-created organization that promotes the economic and environmental health of Idaho woodlands. Each year, IFPC invites local, state and federal government officials, educators, media figures and conservation workers to take the two-day tour and bring the information back to their communities.

The Miracle At Work tour traces the life of a tree at just about every stage and condition of life. Participants witness a tree’s infancy, whether that be as a seedling grown in a nursery or planted in the wild. They see woodlands in the process of being harvested by contractors. They see trees processed at Idaho Forest Group lumber mills into the sturdy boards one picks up at Home Depot. And they visit something akin to forest graveyards, where trees struggle and die in the fight against bark beetles, root diseases, toxic algae and other infestations.

As one of Idaho’s most valuable natural resources, Idaho woodlands play an important part in the state’s economy. It is the lifeblood for companies like Idaho Forest Group, which tour participants saw firsthand at the company’s Chilco Mill. The impact of technology on the lumber industry was evident as sensors assisted in determining quality grade and sophisticated robotics thundered massive logs through the process of de-barking, sawing, drying and sizing. And lumber is only one branch of the industry. Mark Van Vleet of Clearwater Paper discussed the vital role of Idaho forests in paper products of all kinds. And moving logs from place to place keeps truckers like Buell Trucking’s crew on the road and earning money.

The influence of Idaho woodlands on the state economy, not to mention its inextricable connection to air and water quality, mean management decisions are of vital importance to the state. They also play a role in local education, as Idaho Department of Lands manages its woodland endowments for the benefit of state public schools.

Complicating the issue of woodland management in Idaho is the lopsided ownership of those lands. Around 10 percent of the land is owned by farmers, ranchers and other private entities, 5 percent is owned by forest-related industries and 10 percent is owned by the state. The rest—a full 75 percent of Idaho woodland—is owned by the federal government and classified as national forest. That brings with it, for better and for worse, its own set of regulations.

According to U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Mary Farnsworth, management projects must go through a lengthy process of environmental impact review and public comment. Litigation can slow down project implementation even further. And that doesn’t even touch on the financial limitations — an already strained budget for management is being drained further by the epidemic of wildfires in recent years. The cost of fighting those fires quickly burns through pre-allocated money before sucking away management funding like a vampire.

David Groeschl of Idaho Department of Lands believes the slow rate of management in national forests, including the lack of tree thinning to protect against wildfire, puts Idaho woodlands at risk. He said it’s particularly concerning given the increased ferocity of wildfires in recent years.

Foust Logging workers log trees in the woods at Signal Point.

One relatively new tool toward achieving mutual goals between state and federal land managers is the Good Neighbor Authority. Under the terms of the program, the Idaho Department of Lands can loan staff to help the U.S. Forest Service achieve its management goals. Around 12.6 million acres of the 20.3 million acres of Forest Service land in Idaho are suitable for some type of management. And of 8.8 million acres of those 12.6 million acres are at a high risk of mortality from insect or disease infestation. Finally, 4.1 million acres of those 8.8 million acres are suitable for management under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which allows for tools like Good Neighbor Authority. Given those numbers, there’s plenty of work to go around.

With so many challenges at hand, there’s no easy path toward achieving Idaho woodlands as robust and healthy as those of the distant past. But that’s exactly why Idaho Forest Products Commission hosts its Miracle At Work tour. The hope is to get Idaho communities thinking about the problem, one influential mind at a time.

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