Teamwork trimming forest funding gap

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Years of deferred management on national forests in Idaho is slowly being addressed through a partnership between the state, private landowners and the Forest Service.

The partnership, called the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), is responsible for timber sales in the Nez Perce-Clearwater and Panhandle national forests, including two sales set this year near Priest Lake.

The name refers more to forest neighbors — the managers of forest blocks including timber companies such as Potlatch, the Idaho Department of Lands and the U.S. Forest Service — than people down the street, although the program is also touted as helping small communities that depend in part on timber dollars.

Being a good neighbor in an urban setting means keeping your yard clean.

It’s the same thing on forest lands except the stakes are bigger. Dead and dying trees are more easily burned, and once a fire starts in an unmanaged forest with lots of dead trees, it spreads to the neighbors’ land.

Wildland suppression cost the Forest Service $2 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making last year the most expensive year on record.

“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”

In the past, management reduced the threat of wildfire, but beginning in the 1980s, management practices such as logging, which provided the Forest Service with income to operate many of its programs, were curtailed.

Gradually since then, money was funneled to fight wildfires that resulted from unmanaged forest land, and the financial imbalance keeps getting bigger.

“It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on,” Perdue said. “That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”

Of the 12 million acres in Idaho that the Forest Service can manage — an additional 8 million acres have roadless or wilderness designations — 70 percent have a high risk of mortality, insect infestation or disease, according to forest health surveys.

“We’re seeing that in our fire season year after year,” said Jon Songster, the Idaho Department of Lands GNA program manager in Coeur d’Alene. “That’s a big deal because it affects adjoining private ownership and our state land.”

Fires don’t stop at property boundaries, he said.

Less money generated through timber sales, and more money used on fire suppression, has also resulted in staff cuts on Idaho’s national forests and less management ability.

Through GNA, the state can take over the administration of timber sales, pay biologists to do timber sale work required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or hire contractors for restorative work because the Forest Service may be too short-handed to do the job.

A scheduled restorative project near Priest Lake called the Hanna Flats includes forest vegetation management, hazardous fuel reduction on 2,000 acres, timber harvest and prescribed burning, thinning as well as trail maintenance.

Two sales at Jasper Mountain north of Priest River are expected to produce more than 13 million board feet of logs and generate $3 million in income for the program. It includes noxious weed control and forest road mitigation.

The Jasper sales were divided into Jasper II and Hard Rock. Jasper II sold this month to Stimson Lumber for over $1.4 million and the Hard Rock sale will be sold in June, according to the Idaho Department of Lands.

Money earned through timber sales goes back to the Forest Service to be used in the forests where it was generated, minus costs accrued by the state, and 25 percent goes back to counties for things like schools.

Because the Idaho Department of Lands is paid from the earnings, the return from sales to the Forest Service is smaller than it would be on a normal Forest Service sale.

Road maintenance is also addressed under the GNA, said Songster.

Erosion from unmaintained roads, culverts and bridges affects aquatic habitat and impedes access. An estimated $8.4 billion backlog of deferred road maintenance exists on federal land, and the Forest Service is responsible for more than 380,000 miles of roads. GNA funds can be used to help forest roads meet standards.

“Partnering with Idaho Department of Lands increases the Forest’s capacity to do more work on the ground,” acting Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Holly Jewkes said.

Although it was part of the 2014 Farm Bill, the GNA is in its infancy in Idaho. The GNA projects are the result of nearly three years of work between the state, Forest Service, timber companies, the Panhandle Forest Collaborative, and the local community, according to the Forest Service.

“It’s more than just getting logs on a truck,” Songster said. “It’s beneficial to the other stakeholders including conservationists, sportsmen and private land holders. There’s a lot more to this than the timber side.”

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