BOISE, Idaho — Some 600 square miles of U.S. Forest Service land burned in Idaho in 2015 in one of the most destructive summers ever for the cash-strapped agency that for years has faced a backlog of projects aimed at reducing wildfire risks and completing habitat restoration work.
Now the agency in a unique partnership with Idaho that is being eyed by other states is looking to take on landscape-scale projects by using the state’s land management expertise that includes selling timber on federal land.
The first state-managed sale earlier this week brought in $1.4 million for 4.5 million board feet of timber on 216 acres of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in northern Idaho. Officials say the money, after expenses, will go into a fund to be used to finance future timber sales on federal land and non-revenue producing projects such as stream improvements for fish or tree thinning to protect communities from fire.
“There’s a significant amount of work that needs to be done on the National Forest System lands,” said Intermountain Region Forester Nora Rasure, whose area includes 53,000 square miles of forest lands in Utah, Nevada and portions of Wyoming, Idaho and California. “We’ve been trying to increase the pace and scale of that work,” she said Friday.
But with a limited budget that in bad wildfire years is burned up fighting fires, the agency has had trouble moving in that direction.
So Congress in 2014 made the Good Neighbor Authority, which had been operating as a pilot project in two states, available to all states. Idaho lawmakers shortly after approved entering into the partnership, and many other states with national forest lands are also taking part in some form.
Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter in a statement said he sees the program through the state’s land management expertise “improving forest health and creating jobs and economic benefits for our citizens.”
The Idaho Department of Lands manages about 2.4 million acres of state endowment trust land that mainly benefits public schools. About 1 million acres is timberland, and the state has developed the management and infrastructure for timber sales that it’s using for the Good Neighbor Authority program.
“We want to use the market as much as we can to get all of the work done,” said Idaho State Forester David Groeschl.
Groeschl said the equivalent of three full-time Idaho employees work on federal timber sales, which includes determining the value of the timber to be auctioned. The federal timber sales must go through an environmental review, which includes a public process, and be approved by the Forest Service.
Officials estimate the recent sale will create 88 jobs and produce $2.9 million in wages and salaries. McFarland Cascade, the Tacoma, Washington,-based company that won the bidding for the job, didn’t respond with a comment from a request made by The Associated Press.
The program has the backing of one of Idaho’s top environmental watchdog groups, the Idaho Conservation League.
“We hope this increases the pace and work of watershed restoration on public lands,” said the group’s public lands director, John Robison.
He said the work could include relocating or eliminating roads that put sediments into streams, removing undersized culverts that block fish passage, and thinning areas of the forest that have missed several fire cycles and are ripe for intense wildfires that can be especially destructive.
Wildfires haven’t been as bad in Idaho this year as last, but a nearly 300-square-mile wildfire is still burning in central Idaho in areas that include Forest Service land. For much of the summer the fire roared through accumulations of fuel so thick that firefighters retreated from fire lines numerous times in the rugged area with few escape routes.
The Good Neighbor Authority could eventually reduce the size and intensity of those kinds of fires in Idaho. Rasure said the program is being tested in many states in the West and Midwest with various approaches.
“When we learn something that works in Idaho we might try it in another state,” she said. “The diversity that each state brings to the situation will help all of us in the long term with the kind of innovation and level of pragmatism that we need to make this work.”