Idaho Statesman: Crapo’s Collaborative Reaps Reward in the Clearwater

By: Rocky Barker –

The debate over whether to protect the Boulder-White Clouds as a national monument or as a wilderness or to keep the existing wilderness study areas has dominated land discussions in Idaho.

But a group of conservationists, timber industry representatives, local officials, motorized recreationists and the Nez Perce Tribe have been working quietly for eight years on a wilderness bill for the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest. Just like Rep. Mike Simpson and his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act for the Boulder and White Clouds mountains, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative hasn’t called what it’s working on a wilderness bill.

In fact, at the website for the Clearwater Collaborative you will find the word “wilderness” only once in passing. That’s because many of the most outspoken residents of Idaho and Clearwater counties revile wilderness areas, where logging, road-building and motorized recreation is prohibited.

8 YEARS IN THE MAKING

Despite that, the Wilderness Society, an organization established to protect wilderness and wild values, has spent eight years at the table working on an agenda to restore the forests, wildlife, rivers and rural economy of the region. Working under the guidance of Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, this collaborative has helped the U.S. Forest Service rebuild its ability to actively manage its resources, including selling timber.

One project sponsored by the collaborative in the Selway and Middle Fork of the Clearwater River watersheds has attracted $16 million of federal and matching funding, created and maintained more than 650 direct and indirect jobs and generated $19 million in payroll. It has led to the treatment of 61,000 acres of forest and the harvest of 40 million board feet.

One project sponsored by the collaborative in the Selway and Middle Fork of the Clearwater River watersheds has attracted $16 million of federal and matching funding, created and maintained more than 650 direct and indirect jobs and generated $19 million in payroll. It has led to the treatment of 61,000 acres of forest and the harvest of 40 million board feet.

It wasn’t long ago when zero timber was sold on the Clearwater and Nez Perce Forests. This year, 60 million board feet of timber, enough to build 6,000 homes, will be sold from the forest. Even conservationists believe that 100 million board feet can be cut from the roaded areas as a part of a restoration program.

That seems pretty good – except when compared to the past. The Clearwater Forest alone cut more than twice that annually in the 1980s. For residents of towns such as Orofino and Kooskia, it’s hard to accept that won’t happen again, especially as they watch fires burn large swaths of the backcountry.

The collaborative is possible because the parties aren’t fighting over timber harvest in roadless lands. Fire is the agent of change on the backcountry, but would be intolerable in much of the front country.

For conservationists, the five-year project has meant removal of 66 miles of sediment-bleeding roads and rehabilitation of 63 miles of streams. The project has improved 16,000 acres of wildlife habitat.

WORKING MODEL

The success of the collaboration has given the Forest Service a new strategy for success. Today collaboratives are working in Montana and Oregon, among other places. The Forest Service has shortened the time it takes to complete environmental reviews. In Region 1, which includes Idaho, the agency has won 18 of the 22 lawsuits that other environmental groups have filed in recent years to stop the logging.

All of this success means the collaborative will continue, regardless of whether its diverse members can put together a wilderness bill. But all sides – conservationists, local officials and timber companies – want more.

Crapo’s defining achievement is the Owyhee Public Land Management Act, a locally written compromise between ranchers, county officials and environmentalists that created six new Idaho wilderness areas in the South Idaho desert.

Without a comprehensive bill like Crapo’s, the commitment and funding necessary for the full-scale restoration that both sides want for the Clearwater is unlikely.

Local officials such as Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt are pushing reforms to the Forest Service’s environmental-review process that will reduce the costs and barriers to the projects so they can generate more money for the region.

His goal is a “robust timber sale program that is consistent and sustainable.”

BRANCHING OUT

The devils are in the details, but these efforts come as similar reforms are being studied nationwide. Whatever happens, it will take buy-in from groups such as the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy to get them through Congress and signed by the president. Brandt’s panel of local officials and timber companies presented their ideas last week to the entire collaborative group, and they are all still talking.

For the Wilderness Society and others, there won’t be a bill without wilderness. They point to the jobs they have helped create as proof they have earned the trust of the collaborative. They want it to get behind designating wildernesss in the Great Burn near the Montana border north of Lolo Pass and other areas.

In the past, Brandt, who has expressed support for state takeover of federal lands, has been unwilling to say he could support wilderness as a part of the package. But last week he told me he’d changed his thinking.

“We have agreed to say yes to their wilderness and wild and scenic rivers if they agree to substantial changes to the Forest Service process,” Brandt said.

That shows the progress this collaborative has made.

Source: (www.idahostatesman.com)