Timber sale plan stirs passions - Advocates see chance to profit, opponents worry about the water

James Hagengruber
Staff writer
Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

Bonners Ferry District Ranger Mike Herrin talks about the proposed Myrtle Creek salvage timber sale during a field trip Tuesday to the area hit by a wildfire last summer.

BONNERS FERRY, Idaho _ Even the smallest timber sales can send loggers and environmentalists into opposite corners of the boxing ring.

Some of those feelings were evident Tuesday during a tour of a proposed 250-acre salvage logging operation in a burned forest about eight miles west of Bonners Ferry.

A September wildfire burned 3,600 acres in the valley. Community leaders see dollar signs and job prospects in the fire-blackened slopes. Environmentalists worry the profit could come at the cost of further damaging the town's source of drinking water.

Tiny birds fluttered between blackened tree trunks as Forest Service officials explained the proposed project to environmentalists and local politicians. The small audience stood in a circle in the middle of a snow-covered road deep in the burned area.

Rein Atteman, with the Spokane-based Lands Council, had a list of questions for the Forest Service experts. Among other concerns, Atteman worries the project is being approved too quickly and without proper input from the public. He also wanted assurances that the largest of the remaining live trees in the valley would be spared the saw.

At one point, Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning interrupted the questions, asking Atteman, "Is that your objective? To not cut anything?"

Atteman shot back, "On public lands, yeah, and you know that very well."

Dinning shook his head. His face appeared to redden. The Forest Service official in charge of the project, Pat Behrens, also seemed annoyed by Atteman's answer. Behrens told Atteman the demand for lumber continues to rise. If the timber does not come from the United States, Behrens said, "Where's it going to come from? From places that have no environmental laws."

Most of the other exchanges were less prickly. Behrens assured Atteman that everything possible is being done to meet the two goals for the project: recover value from the burned timber while protecting the Bonners Ferry watershed.

About 700,000 board feet of timber is expected to be salvaged from the area, Behrens said. Not including the cost to cut and haul the trees, the timber could fetch $420,000 and will supply enough wood to build about 150 homes.

The proposal calls for the logging to be completed by April, before a protective blanket of snow melts from the burned slopes. This will also get loggers out of the forest before grizzly bears awaken and wander into the area looking for a spring breakfast.

The logs will be flown out by helicopter. Tree tops will be left behind to help return nutrients to the soil, as well as buffer the ground from rains, Behrens said.

The nine parcels being considered for salvage logging are within the boundaries of an earlier timber sale that was halted by the fire. About 4 million board feet of lumber was logged in the drainage prior to the the burn, as part of the Mama Cascade sale, Behrens said. The fire burned up an estimated 40 million to 50 million board feet of lumber.

Many local residents question why the Forest Service is not allowing more than 250 acres to be salvaged, Behrens said.

The relatively small scope of the sale allows the Forest Service to put the project on the fast-track without the usual environmental assessments and public hearings. A full environmental impact statement would take another year, Behrens said. This would give beetles enough time to chew away the value of the wood.

Flatheaded borer beetles and pine beetles have already arrived and a big hatch of the hungry bugs is expected in spring. If the timber's going to be cut, it must be done this winter, Behrens said.

The Forest Service will use special pheromone capsules to protect certain stands of large-diameter trees that survived the fires. The pheromones will fool the beetles into believing the trees have already been infested. About $1.2 million has already been spent protecting burned soils from erosion.

District Ranger Mike Herrin, who led the tour of the burned area Tuesday, said he expects to make a decision on the salvage operation next week. He's not keeping his opinion secret, however.

"It's a good idea, in my opinion. It's sound, it's logical," he said.

Herrin's decision is not appealable. It would take a judge to stop the sale.

Atteman said his group does not have any immediate plans to block the sale. The Lands Council simply wants to make certain that all measures are taken to ensure the burned forest is not damaged further.


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