Friday, February 8, 2008

Idaho roadless areas at crossroads?

Draft rule for managing roadless lands concerns some locals

Environmentalists are concerned that a new draft Idaho roadless rule now under consideration by the U.S. Forest Service could open the door to higher levels of development in places like the Boulder-White Clouds Roadless Area, shown here in the vicinity of 11,815-foot Castle Peak. Photo by Willy Cook

If state and U.S. Forest Service officials have their way, the management of roadless national forest lands in Idaho could soon change.

This latest iteration in a long line of proposals for managing these popular recreational lands would mean that an existing rule issued in the waning hours of the Clinton administration in early 2001 would be replaced in Idaho by what some claim is a less protective rule.

Nationally, the Clinton-era roadless rule protects 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest lands, or nearly one-third of the roughly 193 million acres the Forest Service manages in 43 states. In Idaho, the Clinton rule protects 9.3 million acres.

The new rule is backed by Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, who petitioned for the state-specific rule in 2006, as well as by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

On Wednesday, some 20 people showed up to a public meeting in Hailey sponsored by the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental organization based in Boise but which has an office in Ketchum. The purpose of the meeting was to provide Blaine County residents with an overview of the draft Idaho roadless rule and what it might mean for the state's forested roadless areas.

The presentation was scheduled ahead of a meeting on the plan to be held next week by the Forest Service, at the Community Campus, 1050 Fox Acres Rd. in Hailey on Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 7-10 p.m.

Copies of the revised Idaho roadless rule can be downloaded at

Much of the recent debate concerning the differences between the two rules has come down to the level of development activities they would allow in the name of fire prevention in wildland-urban interface areas.

Only in very limited circumstances, such as when fuels reduction is needed to protect rural communities from the threat of wildfires, can forest managers authorize development activities inside roadless areas protected under the Clinton-era rule, ICL Senior Conservation Associate Jonathan Oppenheimer said during the meeting.

Oppenheimer said backers of the new draft rule claim it would allow forest officials to expedite fuels-reduction projects more quickly than under the Clinton rule. He noted that the draft environmental impact statement for the new rule estimates that up to 800 acres of fuels-reduction projects would be allowed annually in Idaho roadless areas under the new rule, whereas the EIS states that under the Clinton rule, just 100 acres of such projects could take place.

However, he said that based on the ICL's own tracking of fuels-reduction projects that have taken place in Idaho roadless areas since the Clinton rule was put in place, 773 acres were treated in 2007 alone. He said the ICL supports these kinds of projects in the wildland-urban interface.

"The 2001 rule allows you to go in and do some of that work," he said.

Oppenheimer contends the new state plan would place greater development pressures on approximately 5.8 million acres of Idaho's roadless national forest land designated either as "backcountry restoration" or "general forest" areas. Statewide, about 609,000 acres of roadless national forest land is placed in the general forest category under the new draft rule, ICL roadless organizer Tom Schwarz said during the meeting.

"This will open them up," Schwarz said.

Locally, the general forest category would cover 21,000 acres in the southern Pioneer Mountains and a small 700-acre section on the western edge of the White Cloud Mountains near Stanley.

The first area covers the Fisher Canyon and Porcupine Creek drainages west of the Little Wood River and a section of high country surrounding 8,512-foot Swede Peak and 10,545-foot Scorpion Mountain. These lands are predominantly high, open country featuring scattered stands of evergreen trees, mostly on north-facing slopes, and large expanses of grassland.

The White Clouds section covers a roughly two-mile-long by half-mile-wide area where lower Champion Creek pours out of the mountains. The area has a mixture of forest and open range.

Oppenheimer said he hasn't been given an explanation for why these isolated areas in Blaine and Custer counties were placed in the general forest category. In an interview, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said he was also unsure of the reason. He said it could be related to the management direction the forest's revised forest plan specifies for those areas.

Simply having these areas in the general forest category wouldn't translate into any immediate timber, mining or road-building projects. First, the Forest Service would need to go through a stringent environmental assessment and public hearing process required by the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

For now, no such projects are in the works for areas the new rule places in the general forest category in the southern Pioneer Mountains.

Nelson said that under the existing Clinton roadless rule, the Ketchum Ranger District has been able to complete fuels reduction projects within roadless areas where they border residential areas. He said a good example is a project that took place last summer in the vicinity of the upper Board Ranch residential area in the Warm Springs Creek drainage west of Ketchum.

Nelson said the upper Board Ranch area was treated prior to last summer's Castle Rock Fire, which burned through the thinned stands of timber.

"They did respond better," he said.

Nelson said fuels reduction projects completed in the Ketchum Ranger District are only done within 500 feet of private property.

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