County caught in cottonwood quagmire

  • Tree cutters in St. Joe forgot about the eagles - Jesse Tinsley/Spokesma

    eview
  • Idaho's St. Joe River

    Diane Sylvain
 

A simple idea: Eliminate the trees, stabilize the levees, save a town. But things are seldom what they seem.

Ask officials of Benewah County, Idaho. In February, they cut down hundreds of cottonwoods to stabilize levees on the St. Joe River in the town of St. Maries. They wanted to prevent a repeat of last year's disastrous flooding, and satisfy Army Corps of Engineers levee maintenance rules to qualify for a $2 million federal grant to rebuild the town's century-old levees.

What they did was violate much of the major federal and Idaho environmental legislation of the last 25 years.

Now, as the St. Joe River swells under this past winter's unusually heavy snowpack, and flooding worries intensify, the county dangles in a bureaucratic twilight zone that involves three federal agencies, environmentalists, and angry riverside residents whose property includes the levees.

At issue are concerns that, when flood waters saturate levee soil, trees fall, pulling up roots as they go down and leaving a levee full of holes. So the county cut 278 trees to appease its fears and those of some private landowners behind the levees. Then the Army Corps of Engineers weighed in, requesting that the county lop off all trees more than four inches in diameter to meet federal levee maintenance requirements.

All this happened before the Idaho Department of Lands accused the county of violating the state Forest Practices Act and the federal Clean Water Act, and before the Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invoked the Endangered Species Act to stop the cutting. The county hadn't realized what some residents along the river knew well-the trees were winter feeding roosts for bald eagles, not to mention habitat for other raptors, songbirds, ducks and tundra swans.

"I came home from work one day and 20 trees were gone from my backyard," says Sandy Thatcher, a St. Maries resident who lives along the river. "They didn't even ask us if they could cut them."

That was before the logger died - killed by a cottonwood he'd been cutting for the county less than an hour before the federal biologists and Audubon people arrived to halt the work. "This whole thing is unfortunate," says George Currier, the county's emergency management coordinator who helps oversee levee work. "We got caught between federal agencies."

And, now that the tree-cutting is finished, Benewah County's grant money is caught between the federal Economic Development Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they settle on a plan to restore the lost trees and eagle habitat on a six-mile zone along the river. Fish and Wildlife biologists say the cutting was unnecessary because tree roots serve to bind levee soil, not destabilize it. Their plan includes replanting trees behind the levees and building temporary eagle perches - wood platforms atop 60-foot poles.

Meanwhile, with mountain snowpack at twice its normal level - near 20 feet in the Bitterroots - the St. Joe River has risen four feet above flood stage. The levees are containing the water so far, but Currier says mountain temperatures are still low and snow continues to fall. "We're going to have serious water," he warns. "There's no doubt about it." Anticipating that water might spill over the levees in mid-May, he has workers stockpiling sandbags and shoring up levee banks with rock. He adds, however, that these are preventive measures and not what is really needed - major reconstruction of levees weakened by decades of vegetation and water erosion.

So who's really to blame? The Idaho Audubon Council points at the Army Corps, which it says violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by not doing an environmental assessment before the trees were cut; the Idaho Department of Lands blames the county for ignoring bank stability and fish habitat, which is where the Clean Water Act comes in; the Fish and Wildlife Service says fault lies with the county, the Corps, and the Economic Development Administration for not worrying about bald eagles; the Corps and the EDA say they are just following regulations. The county blames everybody.

To George Currier, however, the solution is still simple: Rebuild the levees. "This whole process," he says, "has made us more vulnerable to flooding."

* Peter Chilson, HCN associate editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -