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Collaborative brings good news to Clearwater Country

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Ben Long | May 28, 2013 05:00 AM

Idaho is a paradoxical state. In some places it’s desert and sand dunes, in others, ferns and red cedar.

Its people are also a complex mix of rugged individualists with strong churches and communities, of urban professionals and backwoods blue-collar workers. Those contradictions can pull the state apart or bring folks together.

Fly fishing Kelly Creek

One of those "working together" moments emerged in the Clearwater Basin of north-central Idaho. This country is dear to my heart, as it’s where I grew up and was introduced to the great outdoors. I’ve cruised timber here, learned to backpack, float whitewater, catch trout, and pick huckleberries. Like the native steelhead, I seem to have a homing instinct that draws me back to the Clearwater.

For decades, factions have fought over the Clearwater’s timber, water, wildlife and fisheries. Passions run high because the resources are so rich.

But the major battles and Timber Wars are past and no one really won. Rural towns feel desperate for their future. Conservationists still have no wilderness protected north of U.S. Highway 12 to show for decades of effort. The Clearwater Basin has six million acres of habitat to be managed, most of it national forest, but needed a clearer vision of what that means.

So for five years, representatives of timber, local elected officials, conservationists, the Nez Perce Tribe, motorized recreationists and sportsmen’s groups put together a vision for the future of the Clearwater Basin. The effort was like the old logging days, when lumberjacks blasted huge logjams trying to float logs downstream: it was dangerous, uncomfortable, and strenuous and at some moments seemed futile.

But it worked. This week, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative reached consensus on an agreement for the future of the basin’s people, public land, wildlife and water. It includes protecting key areas like the Great Burn and Mallard-Larkins as wilderness, and additions to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but also helps streamline logging elsewhere, consistent with all existing laws, through an approach that has already resulted in increased timber jobs. It also addresses the needs of the Nez Perce Tribe who have called the region home since time immemorial.

Don’t worry: not everyone will like the plan. It will be attacked from both sides of the spectrum. But most are tired of the bickering of the past and want to move forward.

Next, it’s up to Congress. The meeting rooms of Orofino, Lewiston and Kamiah are a world away from the Beltway. But these are national forests and the entire nation has an interest in their future.

The folks in Idaho will have to demonstrate their vision is the best not just for them, but good for all.

So the work begins anew.  The logjam may be broken, but good-hearted folks will have to keep their pike poles handy and their spiked boots on and brave the treacherous waters until the job is done.

The Clearwater River and its many tributaries live up to their names with water pure enough for steelhead and cutthroat trout. Photo © Bill Mullins and courtesy of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

Ben Long is a outdoorsman, father and conservationist who has split his life between Idaho and Montana, where he currently lives. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
May 29, 2013 10:05 AM
The following letter was sent to Secretary Vilsack on February 28, 2013 by Friends of the Clearwater (a local conservation group) and eleven other conservation groups RE: Clearwater 'collaborative' process. The letter, as well as the oped below from Gary MacFarland, include important information and context not found in Mr. Long's piece. Since these federal public lands belong equally to all Amerians it's important that all Americans have access to different viewpoints in order to make informed decisions. Thank you.

Letter to Sec Vilsack: https://ncfp.wordpress.com/[…]/

US Forest Service must follow the law
By Gary Macfarlane

Lee Rozen’s criticism of Friends of the Clearwater (Our View, written for the editorial board, March 13) is off base, misinformed and reflects a lack of understanding concerning our public land laws and the public involvement process. Had he contacted us, he would have learned why we believe the Forest Service is not following the law. It appears the agency has stumbled into a quagmire, under the guise of collaboration, with its new forest planning process.

The process the Forest Service is currently following on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests plan revision circumvents existing law, creates a contradictory and confusing public involvement process and lacks accountability. For 40 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has governed public input and analysis of agency proposals. NEPA mandates that the first step of the public involvement process is to identify pertinent issues. However, this collaborative process is seeking to resolve issues before the genuine public involvement process even begins. How can the Forest Service resolve issues before they are properly identified?

Under NEPA, all citizens can participate equally. However, the new collaborative forest plan revision process – which has no statutory authority – creates two unequal classes of citizens. The E-collaborative invention funnels citizen comments from the second class through the first class citizen collaborative group. Why should a special working group have more input and be allowed to determine whether or how other citizen comments are used?

Furthermore, NEPA requires an objective analysis of alternatives before decisions are made. Thus, the integrity of NEPA is compromised when the agency reaches a deal or understanding with the collaborative forest planning group before the NEPA process even begins. NEPA must be more than a pro forma exercise. Can you imagine having a collaborative group decide the outcome of an election before the election begins in order to avoid the contentiousness of elections?

Another stated reason behind the new forest planning process is to save time and money. How is having two competing public involvement processes for national forest planning more efficient? Indeed, the Forest Service recently admitted the collaborative process would take longer than anticipated. We feel that such redundancy wastes time and money and also creates conflict and confusion. In fact, a member of the forest planning collaborative for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests – Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League – recently termed the process as collective collaborative confusion at a presentation given in Eugene, Ore. Even proponents of collaboration find the new process fatally flawed.

Retired Forest Service fishery biologist and Moscow resident Al Espinosa stated in a comment letter on the new process, “The intent here is to avoid accountability by eliminating the appeal process and providing a phony pathway around the regulations and laws.”

He also noted the new planning process would circumvent the national interest. Removing accountability and de-legitimizing NEPA’s public involvement and decision-making process is not in the public interest. The Forest Service could have prevented scrutiny, confusion and distrust had the agency followed citizen suggestions made in an October meeting in how to lawfully proceed with the forest plan revision process.

If national forest management is to be determined by local collaborative groups, then existing laws like NEPA need to be repealed first. If the goal is to remove the ability of citizens to have judicial redress and to challenge agency decisions in court, then the Constitution must be amended. The new process for national forest planning clashes with the law. Friends of the Clearwater simply believes the Forest Service should be accountable to U.S. citizens and the law. We think the majority of Americans would agree with us.
Gary Macfarlane
Gary Macfarlane
May 29, 2013 02:15 PM
The real paradox is that collaboration leads to so-called conservation groups signing off on lawless logging and getting the cut-out. Take for instance the Clear Creek Integrated Restoration Project; the golden egg of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.

The data for the "go-big" Clear Creek project does not show that the watershed is currently meeting standards according to the current Forest Plan, nor does it suggest an upward trend. And yet, groups participating in the collaborative may look the other way when submitting their public comments because, after all, collaboration can only be successful when "we advocate for the interest of others." So in the end, the watershed gets hammered even more, despite the fact that it is already is bleeding sediment. But people are "working together"!

And it's too bad that Mr. Long feels that the "major battles and Timber Wars are past and no one really won". I guess reigning in a century of over-cutting, road building, fish and wildlife habitat degradation, and the loss of old-growth dependent species wasn't worth the fight. Maybe Long should hop back in his timber-cruiser and stop writing articles that mislead the public.
Chuck Pezeshki
Chuck Pezeshki
May 30, 2013 12:59 PM
Did a village in Montana lose their idiot? One has to wonder when reading Ben Long's piece. Nothing accomplished? How about the 2001 Roadless Rule, that essentially protected all Clearwater roadless lands, and had a big part of its start in the Clearwater country and the landslide events of 1994-1995?

There's not 6 million acres of land in the Clearwater that needs to be 'managed'. That 6 million acres of land has seen enough 'management'. And the towns that have made the transition out of the timber economy -- virtually all -- are doing just fine, thank you. Timber was never as a big a player as people like Long like to say. And one or two more projects will never bring back the 'glory days' -- because most of the good land had already been cut.

But if you're a status-based thinker, it matters to people like Long what you call a piece of landscape. Not the reality that's out on the ground -- and the damage that will be done to our laws and our nations by people willing to sell out land they don't know, and really don't care about, so they can hang a medal around their neck.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
May 31, 2013 02:31 PM
This article and the link jogged my memory to that other great HCN piece by Marshall Swearingen. https://www.hcn.org/[…]/forests-test-drive-collaboration Both of these articles spark some hope that most people are ready to move on beyond endless conflict and litigation. In reading Marshall’s article I see that all the stakeholders (hate that word) spend a Saturday every month hashing out the details. Regular people who work for a living can participate. Besides the Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy I notice other participants are these things called Citizens at Large.

I live too far away to participate, and maybe that’s a good thing, I couldn’t point to the Clearwater on a map to save my life, and I’ll bet a lot of people who like to make public comments about things like the Clearwater couldn’t point to it on a map either. Instead people who actually know the place and are willing to give up a Saturday a month are hashing out the differences of all the different interest groups. And they are getting things done. You have to wonder about the whiners, was one Saturday just too much of an investment?

One hopes these same methods could perhaps be used for such things as Endangered Species, Wilderness Areas, and other uses of public lands and resources.
Kathryn Allen
Kathryn Allen
May 31, 2013 09:31 PM
I'm someone who has lived in Clearwater County for 40 years and find the comment by Chuck Pezeshki, that "all the towns that made the transition out of the timber economy--virtually all--are doing just fine, thank you" indicates he doesn't know that the County has chronic high unemployment and it is still at 13%. Three of the County's 4 towns lost over half of their population. It is hard to replace jobs for wage-earners in rural counties. Many younger people left the county and gradually retirees started moving in. Many locals are appreciative of the Collaborative work.

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