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Know the West

County caught in cottonwood quagmire


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