Viewpoint: Clearcuts in Idaho panhandle misguided
Remember when the Forest Service bluffed the public and the naive collaborator groups saying the agency never approved clearcuts larger than 20 acres? No longer!
The latest Buckskin-Saddle project in northern Idaho includes 30 square miles of logging with more than half that area in clearcuts – including 31 clearcuts larger than 100 acres and one huge clearcut that will denude 2,256 acres of national forest!
Given that this project is located in bull trout, lynx and grizzly habitat – all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act – the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council had no choice but to challenge the massive logging and burning project in Federal District Court in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
The scope of the planned deforestation is absolutely stunning. The Forest Service has authorized 19,474 acres for logging with 13,005 acres targeted for commercial logging and another 6,469 acres of noncommercial logging. Another 5,090 acres of forest are slated to be burned.
Clearcutting hurts 95% of the native forest species such as grizzly bears, flammulated owls, lynx, and pygmy nuthatch. Being an agency wholly captured by the timber industry, the Forest Service wants to clearcut the commercially valuable mature Doug Fir, but says it will then ‘restore’ the area by planting ponderosa pines, claiming that the area is a “dry forest” – which is a ridiculous claim since the Pend Oreille area is home to the renowned Schweitzer ski area, which is famous for its deep powder snow averaging 300 inches per year.
The Forest Service also failed to evaluate the impacts on a large suite of other vulnerable bird species that rely on mature trees and/or old growth forest habitat, including but not limited to migratory birds. Of 67 western forest birds, 64% are in decline and projects like this are a good example of why. This is an ongoing crisis for North American landbirds which continues to be completely ignored by the Forest Service which is the agency charged with managing massive amounts of habitat for these birds. The single 3 1/2 square mile clearcut would destroy the mature/old growth forest habitat for over a century – and given the increasing uncertainty of climate change impacts, there’s no guarantee the forest will even grow back.
To evoke public fear of wildfire and avoid legally-required environmental review, the Forest Service is using a made-up and illegal definition of the Wildland Urban Interface. But while the Healthy Forest Restoration Act allows some exceptions to the requirement for environmental analysis in the Wildland Urban Interface, it also defines the Wildlife Urban Interface as within a mile and half of a community -- and this area does not meet the legal definition. It’s shocking that the agency would try such a ploy when there’s a legally-binding federal court decision that requires the Forest Service to comply with the legal definition of Wildland Urban Interface.
Shockingly, Buckskin-Saddle is only one part of a 146,000 acre contiguous logging project area stretching from the Clark Fork River south past Hayden Lake. Despite the fact that most grizzly bears are killed in close proximity to roads by poachers -- and recent sightings of a grizzly sow and cub in the area -- the agency is proposing over 27 miles of new road construction even though the existing high road density reduces connectivity between the Cabinet-Yaak and Bitterroot grizzly bear recovery areas.
Stretching this huge timber sale over 15-20 years will effectively eliminate the area for use and or recolonization by fishers, a native species that feeds primarily on porcupines and the snowshoe hare that rely on dense mature forests. It’s not surprising, then, that the best available peer reviewed research finds that large clearcuts prevent fishers from utilizing an area.
Simply put, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest is using ‘chainsaw medicine’ to clearcut mature forests at the behest of the ever-greedy timber industry. The only realistic way to stop the deforestation is for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Council to challenge the agency’s illegal clearcuts and bulldozers in federal court.
It’s never easy nor cheap to sue the federal government, and we’d appreciate any help from those who are willing to fight to secure a future for threatened and endangered species in the Northern Rockies.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.