Idaho roadless panel gives thumbs up and down on projects

A thinning project and a reforestation program to help disappearing whitebark pine got a thumbs up.

But modifying the boundaries of a roadless area so a road could be built to construct a cell phone tower got a thumbs down. Those were the kind of recommendations the Idaho Roadless Commission made to U.S. Forest Service staff across Idaho Tuesday.

The panel, made up of foresters, county officials, conservationists and industry representatives is wrapping up a two-day meeting Wednesday as a federal appeals court deliberates on its future. It is designed to give the Forest Service a first look at how Idahoans react to proposed projects.

The commission was established by the Idaho Roadless Rule, which protects nearly 9 million acres of Idaho’s 20 million acres of national forest. The rule designates 250 roadless areas and establishes five management themes that guide temporary road construction, timber cutting, mineral development and recreation.

These themes and especially the logging and other activities allowed in 5.5 million acres designated as back-country restoration, are what prompted several environmental groups to challenge the rule in federal court. The Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited supported the rule that then Gov. Jim Risch negotiated as an alternative to the 2001 national Roadless rule.

So its no surprise the two groups have representatives on the commission.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments the roadless rule Friday in Portland. It will decide in two to six months whether to uphold U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s decision that the rule was legal.

The commission was well aware its own recommendations are under scrutiny from the groups that are appealing the rule. Forest Service staff made the case that the boundaries between two roadless areas in eastern Idaho probably were meant to follow the ridgeline.

But a closer look at the line going slightly below in places, which would be two steep to build a road. New Northern Region Forester Faye Krueger, a member of the commission, actually worked on the Caribou Forest when the maps were drawn.

Even she couldn’t say for certain why the lines went where they did. For Trout Unlimited’s Scott Stouder that was enough to make him refer to how the lawyers for Earthjustice that argued the case would see it.

“They would say this is just moving the boundary to build the road,” Stouder said.

Not everyone on the panel thought the boundary shouldn’t be modified. But the commission operates by consensus.

If everybody isn’t on board, there is no recommendation.

Jim Caswell, the chairman, also was the creator of the themed approach to Idaho’s roadless rule. A former forest supervisor on two different Idaho forests, he drafted the rule as the director of the Office of Species Conservation for both Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Gov. Risch.

He shared Stouder’s opposition.

“From my perspective this is inappropriate,” Caswell said.

Cell towers are allowed in roadless areas but Caswell said the developer should either bring it in with helicopters or over the snow in winter.

In another area, where a mining company plans to open a pit to mine phosphate outside a roadless area, the panel supported a map correction of a slurry pipeline through the roadless area. The pipeline special area could be used as road under the rule but that would be decided later.

“I think it’s more of a mapping issue than anything else,” said Alan Prouty, J.R. Simplot’s vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs and a commission member.

Everyone agreed, thumbs up.

The restoration projects were proposed on the Boise National Forest in high elevation areas. In an area near Big Creek Summit, conifers competing with whitebark pine trees will be “felled lopped and retained on the site.” The other is a reforestation project.

No roads need to be built for either one. For Caswell the projects are a reminder the rule is not just about locking up the roadless areas.

“The rule has permissions along with prohibitions,” he said.