Idaho officials and U.S. Forest Service land managers are quietly working on an expanded land management approach that could help revitalize some of Idaho’s remote rural communities’ economies and add additional protections for recreational users, resort areas and expanding homes in those regions.
The projects have mostly been beneath the public radar, but recently Idaho and federal officials identified some 6,700 square miles of land within the state as good candidates for landscape-sized efforts to thin dense timber, improve access, reduce fire threats to nearby towns and protect the human/forest lands interface.
The Shared Stewardship projects are mostly in Northern and North Central Idaho, but huge parcels of at-risk lands and timber extend into Eastern Idaho and into Blaine County where the Beaver Creek fire in 2013 torched over 100,000 acres and threatened the towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley. Today, bleak hillsides and charred timber still give evidence of the fire’s ferocity.
The new forest stewardship program allows the state to participate in expanded federal timber sales, the proceeds from which would go toward restoration. Federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would remain in place, as would EPA regulations on stream water quality.
Nor would it alter protections for areas like wilderness designations, river courses and parks or popular recreation sites. Importantly, there wouldn’t be any transfers of land ownership; the lands would remain federal property.
The stewardship cooperative efforts are an outgrowth of earlier initiatives beginning in 2014 and 2015 with new federal provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill that essentially invited states to create new working agreements with federal forest managers.
One goal was, and is, to stabilize timber-dependent economies in much of Idaho’s back-country areas where prior federal “no cut” philosophies have destroyed local economies and led to monstrous wildfires.
I served on a legislative interim committee in 2014 to hear community comments on the idea. We travelled the state widely, to place like Kamiah, St. Maries, Sandpoint, Twin Falls and Hailey. Everywhere, we heard similar stories of how past policies of “no cut” and “leave it alone” and “let it burn” had let to horrific wildfires, loss of marketable timber, and reduced recreational use.
In several cases, whole communities were closely threatened and saved only through the Herculean efforts of firefighters who risked their lives. Only in one community, Hailey, did environmental activists not support changes.
Our report, approved by the Legislature in 2015, laid the groundwork for this year’s expansion, which potentially could include over 6 million acres in Idaho.
At first, the idea of cooperative forest and range management was viewed suspiciously by environmental groups, which feared it would lead to privatization. But that’s not in the cards. Indeed, the 2015 Legislative resolution (SJR 126, 2015 session) specifically calls for more access, not less.
But now, with increased fire threats from fuel buildup and diminishing fire-fighting funds at the federal level, managers are looking at this new model. It’s also getting scrutiny in other states in the West as they face similar issues with fire threats and diminishing money.
Launched by the Otter administration and now being expanded by Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Department of Lands, the stewardship projects represent an intriguing path forward for the state.
The new report, released July 2, identifies 50 high-priority drainages and landscapes where projects would likely be effective, including reforestation, selective cutting and prescribed small burns.
Some of the landscapes are sparsely timbered, but others have dense stands, with up to 27 million board feet/acre. At an estimated 18 jobs per million board feet, a program like this would clearly help Idaho economies in areas where much help is needed (For more information, see Idaho Department of Lands website at www.idl.idaho.gov.) It’s a case where looking for solutions is paying off.
Now if it could be expanded even more to include BLM lands in Southern Idaho, that would be huge. Range managers know the importance of grazing to keep fuels in check. Except among some far-out activists, the cooperative stewardship model on more public lands would be a positive step indeed.