Hanna Flats Timber Harvest at Priest Lake Has Supporters and Detractors
The Idaho Department of Lands is teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service to do a timber harvest project at Priest Lake in a new collaborative effort. The project has both supporters and detractors. The project calls for logging about 2800 acres at Hanna Flats near Priest Lake.
The partnership between the state and feds is sanctioned by what’s called the Good Neighbor Authority under the Farm Bill of 2014: “We decided that by putting our forces together, we could combine and tackle this Hanna Flats area, so this is like a pilot project for the Panhandle National Forest,” says Matt Staudacher of the Panhandle National Forest, who says state and federal lands intermingle at Priest, and the forest service personnel were too busy to begin such a project by themselves.
While much of the focus is reducing the threat of wildfire by thinning and removing dead and dying trees, there are some who are critical of the specifics of additional timber harvest.
George Guerthner has written more than two dozen books on natural history and other environmental topics. He is currently the ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology. He says the main factors that lead to wildfire are high temperatures, low humidity, and wind, and that forest managers are overemphasizing the threat of dead and dying trees, harmed by insects, in an effort to make money: “What happens when you thin the forest, you open it up to greater drying, make it easier for wind to penetrate, and you increase the temperatures in the forest where the heat can penetrate as well. And that’s why if you look at a lot of these wildfires, often the north facing slopes, where you have the most fuel, burn at the lowest intensity sometimes, because they are too moist.”
The Forest Service’s Matt Staudacher says while fuels reduction is a focus of the work, it’s not the only part of the project: “Number one is to reduce the risk of insects and disease infestation, and north Idaho is full of root infestations and disease, and so the main purpose of the project is to focus on that, and restoration projects to get white pine and larch back, and some of the species we have lost because of white pine blister rust.”
One party that is welcoming the thinning project is a group that recreates in the Hanna Flats area in the winter. Tom Weitz is the vice president of the Priest Lake Nordic Club, which uses the area for cross country skiing and snowmobiling, “We have some difficulty grooming with tree wells, tight turns, and so on. Thinning would address those issues and will make grooming easier. We also have a lot of downed trees along the ski trails, and it often doubles or triples our grooming time if we have to saw trees out of the way.”
Despite supporters of the project, there are those who feel the current policy of emphasizing forest health and moves to restrict citizens’ ability to challenge such projects through what is called “categorical exclusion” are signs that some environmental concerns may go by the wayside.
Barry Rosenberg is a local forest activist, and former head of the Lands Council and Kootenai Environmental Alliance, “It’s a self-perpetuating and sort of a perfect storm situation where you have the Idaho Department of Lands and the Forest Service, being able to increase the cut, using insects, fire and disease as an excuse, and prohibit the people being able to file objections , which is the new word for the old appeals process, and forcing them to go to court, which is beyond the means of most concerned citizens.”
The two agencies plan to conduct field surveys in October to determine potential impacts, refine the treatment areas, and finalize the design criteria of the project.