Conservationists are voicing cautious optimism about proposed changes an advisory committee has recommended for a new plan to manage Idaho's vast collection of roadless national forest lands.
The proposal would set the management direction for 9.3 million acres of roadless national forest land in Idaho.
In a May 30 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer, the 14-member Roadless Area Conservation National Advisory Committee suggests, among other things, that only temporary roads be allowed in narrow buffer areas of inventoried roadless areas in Idaho for fuels reduction work. These projects, which the rule would allow to take place in a small portion of the 5,246,100 acres of roadless land designated under a "Backcountry Restoration" management theme, would allow management flexibility for protecting communities from the threat of wildfire.
Under guidelines proposed by the committee, community protection zones would be established inside designated roadless areas extending .5 miles out from the boundary of "at-risk communities." The committee also suggests the community protection zones be established in areas within 1.5 miles of at-risk communities where steep slopes could aid the spread of wildfire or where geographic features aid in creating an effective firebreak, such as "a road or ridge top."
"Management flexibility for protecting communities from fire is important," the committee states in its letter.
To the relief of at least some Idaho conservationists, the committee has apparently recommended that permanent roads not be allowed inside roadless areas for fuels reduction work or for other forest health treatments. Temporary roads built under the committee's suggested guidelines would need to be reclaimed once the work was complete and would only be accessible for uses related to forest health work.
While they're just recommendations—Schafer will have the ultimate say on the final draft later this year—the proposed language appears to alleviate many of the concerns conservationists had after viewing the original language included in a draft version of the new Idaho roadless rule last January.
"We're certainly encouraged," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, Idaho Conservation League's Senior Conservation Associate.
During four meetings the advisory committee has held around the country since January to discuss the Idaho roadless rule they've made suggestions for several other changes to the original draft rule, Oppenheimer said. Among them, they've suggested 21,000 roadless acres in the southern Pioneer Mountains originally proposed for "General Forest" management be re-designated under the backcountry restoration theme, which is more protective.
In all, the committee has indicated they'd like to see a 200,000-acre reduction in statewide roadless lands designated in the general forest category, and have them placed in the backcountry theme, he said. The January version of the Idaho rule, backed by Lt. Gov. Jim Risch as well as Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, placed 609,000 roadless acres across the state into the general forest category, which would allow for timber cutting, mining or road-building projects.
The committee has also suggested several popular spots possibly be re-designated from the "Primitive" designation to the "Wild Land Recreation" theme, the strictest designation provided for by the Idaho rule. Areas highlighted for the potential change include the Rapid River Roadless Area west of Riggins and the Moose Mountain Roadless Area in Idaho's Clearwater region.
"It's hopefully moving it in the right direction," he said.
Oppenheimer said the ICL is reserving judgment on the final draft of the Idaho roadless rule until its publication in the federal register, anticipated for late September. The rule would become law after 30 days and replace the existing 2001 Clinton rule in Idaho, which protects all roadless forestlands under the same classification.