Forest advocates: Nez Perce Clearwater Forest plan favors resource extraction

The Clearwater National Forest from Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border. The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest has hurriedly released its draft management plan, which many public land and wildlife groups say eliminates public involvement in favor of resource extraction. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest has hurriedly released its draft management plan, which many public land and wildlife groups say eliminates public involvement in favor of resource extraction.

On Wednesday night, the Friends of the Clearwater hosted an informational meeting at the Missoula Public Library to highlight the parts of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Management Plan that the organization found troubling. About 20 people attended.

“Why care about a forest plan in Idaho?” said Katie Bilodeau, Friends of the Clearwater staff attorney. “What happens in Idaho is coming here. The Lolo and Bitterroot national forests have not yet revised their forest plans. So if the forest set some precedent with this forest plan, you can pretty much guarantee this is coming to some forests near you.”

The U.S. Forest Service combined the Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests into one in 2009, and the forest sits just west of the Idaho border along the Bitterroot Mountains and south into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Forest management plans are supposed to guide forest actions for 10 to 15 years before they are rewritten. But the management plans for the Nez Perce and Clearwater forests were written in 1987, and the USFS is only now proposing a new plan, which could potentially remain in place for decades to come. The draft plan was published on Dec. 20.

The changes proposed by the new plan are significant and not friendly to habitat or wildlife conservation.

Where the two forests were originally divided into 39 management areas that prioritized different characteristics, like logging or old growth, the new plan divides the entire forest into only three management areas.

“Logging is permitted in two of three of those management areas,” Bilodeau said. “That means that logging is fair game for anything in the back county, which includes the Idaho roadless areas, recommended wilderness areas and proposed research natural areas, in addition to the front country where they’ve already been logging.”

The USFS can log almost everywhere on the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest under the plan because the Idaho Roadless Rule doesn’t prohibit logging.

The new plan also removes numerical standards, such as sediment limits in mountain streams or requirements for preserving a certain percentage of old-growth trees.

Logging and logging roads cause sediment to run into streams, and too much sediment can damage or destroy habitat for steelhead, threatened bull trout and other native fish. In the old plans, the USFS would have to monitor such pollution to make sure the forest plan standards weren’t exceeded.

The public could force the USFS to uphold the standards if it didn’t. For example, the Nez Perce tribe got action after threatening to sue the USFS over sediment in steelhead streams.

But the new plan replaces hard numbers with qualitative descriptions, like “at risk,” which are hard to define, so it’s more difficult for the public to prove to a judge that the USFS is not doing its job. It’s one way for an agency to push logging projects through that wouldn’t have been approved in the past.

“From an attorney’s perspective, a federal judge has to defer to the Forest Service on its forest plan as long as the facts support their conclusions. It’s a lot harder for a court to defer to an agency when there are measurable quantifiable standards that the record just doesn’t support,” Bilodeau said.

Another big change is the way the forest plan proposal is structured. Before the Trump administration took office, federal land agencies would offer different alternatives for the public to consider, including one that the agency said it preferred and a “no-action” alternative, which in this case means the management plan would remain the same as the 1987 plan.

But the USFS identified no preferred alternative, and the other alternatives – labeled W, X, Y, and Z – are confusing, said audience member Bert Lindler.

“These four alternatives aren’t really coherent,” Lindler said. “In the past, there was a logging alternative and a wilderness alternative and so forth. But these cases, they mix odd things together, like the highest timber output might have the most wilderness. You can’t pick one of these and say that’s for me.”

Bilodeau said the Forest Service was calling the “W” alternative the “Have it most” alternative, because it has the most wilderness but also the most logging.

The new plan doesn’t acknowledge the contribution of logging to climate change, so “the Forest Service is doubling down on logging in this plan,” Bilodeau said. While the 1987 plan allows the extraction of about 50 million board-feet a year, alternatives W and X would ramp that up to between 200 and 250 million board-feet.

That puts critical wildlife habitat at risk, gutting core areas and migration corridors for grizzly bears, wolverine, fisher and other species that need some of the last remaining roadless areas in the U.S. The Nez Perce-Clearwater includes 1.5 million acres of roadless forest in addition to federal wilderness areas.

The Friends of the Clearwater submitted their own alternative that the USFS refused to analyze, Bilodeau said.

One of the audience members said the 1987 plan has better forest protections than the new one so, the public should ask the Forest Service to go with the no-action alternative and keep what they have.

“This indicates what I see with other plans: they don’t recommend much of the roadless areas for wilderness,” said Jeff Juel. “They want resource extraction to happen just about everywhere outside of wilderness.”

The Trump administration has made it clear that federal agencies will prioritize economic factors and corporate interests over conservation issues in plans and projects. The logging emphasis of recent forest plans echo the focus on resource extraction in recent resource management plans published by the Bureau of Land Management for areas in Montana.

Mike Bader of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force said the two forest plan revisions that preceded the Nez Perce-Clearwater in the USFS Region 1 – the Kootenai and the Flathead – also ramped up logging levels and logging roads are no longer being closed or destroyed.

The public can comment on the draft Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest management plan until April 20. The USFS has scheduled informational meetings on Feb. 22 in Missoula at 10 a.m. and Hamilton at 3 p.m.

“If a lot of the public (submits) comments, there could be enough, based on numbers, to put political pressure,” Bilodeau said. “It helps when there are enough of us, but beyond that, it opens the door to more litigation issues.”

Wednesday’s meeting was sponsored by the Friends of the Clearwater, the Friends of the Bitterroot, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, Wild Earth Guardians, Wilderness Watch and the Wild West Institute.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.