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To save steelhead, groups challenge clearcut logging in Idaho

Two organizations have put the U.S. Forest Service on notice to scale back a logging project that threatens runs of steelhead or they’ll sue.

On Monday, the Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater and Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service protesting parts of the 3,400-acre Lolo Insect and Disease Project.

The letter starts a 60-day clock. At the end of the 60 days, the groups can sue if the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest hasn’t made changes to protect the steelhead trout in the Lolo Creek watershed that flows into the Clearwater River that parallels U.S. Highway 12 on the west side of Lolo Pass.

This is not the same Lolo Creek that feeds into the Bitterroot River.

After scoping the project in 2017, the Lochsa District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest published a decision in July 2019 to log more than 2,600 acres, 97% of which would be clearcut, leaving clumps of 14 to 28 trees an acre. Some of the clearcut areas would be just outside roadless areas, while others are along National Historic Landmark corridors.

But most important to the two groups, the logging will be adjacent to several headwaters streams where steelhead spawn, such as Eldorado, Wapiti, Gold and Musselshell creeks. Logging with tractors and skyline/cable systems and the 157 miles of road used to haul logs out can cause streams to fill with sediment, which is not good for fish.

In his decision, Nez Perce Clearwater acting supervisor Kurtis Steele said computer models show that sediment would increase in streams during the project. But he said the watershed would eventually improve because the agency would decommission the roads after five years and improve culverts.

But declining steelhead populations could be gone in five years.

“Steelhead have declined significantly over the past few years while the Lolo Creek watershed was being heavily logged, and steelhead decline in that watershed appears to be even greater than elsewhere in the Snake River Basin,” said Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater. “Although the Nez Perce Tribe has spent millions of dollars trying to recover the watershed, the decline suggests ongoing habitat degradation is to blame. Yet the data used in the agencies’ analyses were older and didn’t reflect this serious decline. The agencies are obligated to do their due diligence and they have not done so.”

Sportsmen have bemoaned the declining steelhead populations in the Clearwater River for years. In the 1950s and ‘60s, steelhead migrating past the Lewiston Dam averaged 40,000 fish per year, but now, few if any are seen. So the Snake River population was listed as threatened in 1997, similar to populations throughout the West.

Last fall, it reached the point where the Idaho Fish and Game Commission closed all steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River and farther downstream in the Snake River due to low steelhead numbers. The Nez Perce Tribe also shut down tribal fishing on the rivers.

The Forest Service often justifies logging projects partly by economics and the number of jobs produced. But with the loss of steelhead, businesses in Clearwater and Nez Perce counties will take an economic hit because anglers spend an estimated $350 per fishing trip, according to Idaho Fish and Game.

While dams limit migration to and from the sea, steelhead have also been dying from the loss of clear, cold water in spawning streams due to diversions and sedimentation.

A 2011 analysis of the Lolo Creek watershed found that water quality in Musselshell, Gold and upper Eldorado creeks was already impaired, thus limiting spawning and aquatic life. The survey recommended that more riparian shade was needed to cool the stream water.

He also said the amount of clearcut is near the threshold where the loss of mature trees could affect the water balance, however “the risk is worth the gain” in meeting other desired conditions. But many, including the Nez Perce Tribe, questioned the need to clearcut, especially 123 acres in the Eldorado Creek roadless area.

It could be that this kind of project is indicative of things to come because the proposed Nez Perce-Clearwater Management Plan would prioritize logging almost everywhere, even in some protected areas. Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle has said the Nez Perce Clearwater leadership wants to promote these kinds of projects.

Others argue that the cash-strapped Forest Service should pursue projects within the wildland-urban interface where they can do more to affect wildfire risk rather than making inroads into more remote wild areas.

“The Trump administration bulldozed ahead with this clear-cutting proposal in steelhead Critical Habitat and ignored recent data that shows Snake River Basin steelhead populations are currently at a 25-year low,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We hope the Trump administration takes our 60-day notice seriously. If they ignore it, we will be left with no choice but to exercise our First Amendment rights and ask the federal courts to force the Trump administration follow the law.”

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.