Forest Service considers merging Idaho and Wyoming forests

Idaho could end up with one less national forest headquartered in its borders.

The U.S. Forest Service is studying a plan to merge the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming with the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho. The new forest would cover six million acres surrounding Yellowstone National Park on the west, south and east down to the Utah border and into central Idaho.

Merging forests has been a long-time strategy for the agency that manages 193 million acres of national forest, 20 million in Idaho. That’s how the two forests that once were four got their current names and size.

The driving force of this proposal was the sale of the Bridger-Teton headquarters in Jackson, Wyo for more than $11 million. Instead of building another headquarters in the expensive real estate of Jackson Hole, Forest Service officials were looking at Alpine, the tiny village on the Idaho border.

At time when federal agencies are looking at every way to cut their budgets as they face continuing cutbacks to help bring the budget back into balance, tying the two forests came up. A full merger is the most dramatic of the options, but the two forests already share staff and further consolidation short of merger are also on the table.

Six million acres appears to be far bigger than Gifford Pinchot was thinking about when it sought to keep national forests connected to the communities around them. Jackson and Wyoming in general is very different than Idaho, except perhaps Teton County, which does share a dependence on the tourism and second home economy.

They also have ecological connections that can’t be denied, as a major part of the 20-million acre greater Yellowstone ecosystem. But if the agency is simply looking at money they probably can save about $1 million annually for the federal budget, agency officials said.

That’s a couple of days firefighting on a big fire.

Since this new national forest will be a part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, managers should think bold and out of the box. They need to bring the public in early with ideas and plans that leverage its international cache.

Perhaps cutting out one of the agency’s regional offices would make more sense than cutting more people on the ground who work face-to-face with people. Maybe turning a major chuck of the two forests into a national recreation area and parceling out the remaining chucks to other forests would make more sense.

You remember that Boisian Kathy Steinbach had a vision for a new national monument in the northeast corner of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest that contains Mesa Falls, Idaho’s most moving series of waterfalls, along with pure, clear springs bubbling out the ground, and priceless hot springs connected to Yellowstone’s geysers. The Idaho Statesman turned her idea into a proposal that I call the Idaho Caldera National Monument.

It would be a shame if this 200,000-acre home to grizzly bears, trumpeter swans and moose were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle of a six million-acre-national forest.