Located in the heart of north-central Idaho, the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest is known for its wild character.
The area encompasses 4 million acres of federal land, ranging from deep, rugged river canyons to steep, jagged mountains. It also includes 1.5 million acres of roadless forests, making it one of the largest unprotected roadless areas in the Lower 48 states.
For those who value wildlife and quiet recreation above resource extraction, the region is a refuge.
In a public letter to the Forest Service, an Idaho resident recounted: “My three-year-old has gotten her diaper changed under its cedar canopies, practiced walking alongside its streams, marveled at its flowers, and gazed at its stars. There are few places to build these kinds of generational memories, and few places where you can return year upon year with certainty that it’ll be just as wild as it was the time before.”
The tremendous range and diversity of habitats provide homes for hundreds of species. Rich waterways are filled with native fish, such as salmon, sockeye, steelhead and threatened bull trout, and framed by lush riparian vegetation.
Grizzly bears, who need remote country with few roads, are venturing back into the area, and many more rare members of the animal kingdom, such as the Northern Rockies fisher, American marten, lynx and black bears, rely on cover from mature forest landscapes to survive.
But this forest’s survival and its future may not be so certain anymore.
All of the country’s national forests are required to have a resource management plan, as dictated by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. Among other things, these plans are designed to protect public lands from excessive or destructive logging.
The individual Nez Perce and Clearwater plans were last updated in 1987, so long ago that if they were women, they would be preparing for perimenopause.
The two forests were administratively combined in 2013. This changing of the guard represents an opportunity to revamp outdated practices, incorporate new science into the process, advance sound climate-forward alternatives to conventional logging practices and help pivot the current climate trajectory, according to John Talberth, senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy.
Talberth authored a report recently analyzing greenhouse gas emissions and the climate impact from U.S. Forest Service draft plans for the Nez Perce-Clearwater, and the results didn’t encourage environmentalists.
“Federal agencies need to be at the forefront” of climate-smart forest planning, Talberth said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. Instead, he claimed the drafts of the revised forest plan and environmental impact statement fail to accomplish stated goals and are a huge step backward in progressive planning.
All forest roads lead to more logging
Forest plans are meant to engage many stakeholders in the process of forest planning, including the public, while ensuring scientific integrity.
In 2019, the Forest Service quietly released two behemoth documents — totaling 2,219 pages — as part of its draft plan for the Nez Perce-Clearwater, and did so on Dec. 20, just before the holiday break, essentially removing about two weeks from the 90-day public feedback period.
The Forest Service described four “action alternatives” in the plan. All four would significantly increase industrial activity in the area from 50-60 million board feet to around 260 million board feet of timber.
This increase in the allowance of logging is in line with current trends for timber harvest. Zach Peterson, forest planner at the U.S. Forest Service, confirmed in a phone interview with the Statesman that “every year we’ve done just a little bit more (logging) than the year past.”
While the two forests were originally divided into 39 management areas that prioritized different characteristics, such as logging or old growth, the new plan would divide the entire forest into only three management areas: front country, backcountry and protected areas with national designations.
Peterson said logging would occur primarily in the front country, but technically could be permitted in all three management areas — which include roadless areas, recommended wilderness areas and proposed research natural areas, which are designated to be protected.
The draft proposal claims there are 969,187 acres of land suitable for timber production in the plan area. Much of this logging would involve commercial “regeneration harvest,” meaning clear cuts and variations of clear cuts — many greater than 40 acres (or larger than 40 football fields), which is the maximum harvest size for a single operation.
The new maximum harvest size proposed is 375 acres, almost 10-fold the previous limit. Harvests larger than 40 acres would need special approval in the new plan, but “the majority of projects requested are granted this exception,” according to the draft Environmental Impact Statement.
“Unfortunately, this forest plan is going in the opposite direction (of what we want) by proposing a significant increase in logging, clear cutting and road building,” Talberth said.
A plan for less old-growth forest and more sediment run-off
The new plan also would remove requirements for preserving a certain percentage of old-growth forests or sediment limits in mountain streams.
The current forest plan calls for 10% of forest to be old growth, but there’s no such threshold in the draft plan, according to Jeff Juel, forest policy director at Friends of the Clearwater, a Moscow-based environmental nonprofit.
The draft claims that because the most recent data show the forest still does not meet the 10% old-growth standard, these guidelines have “done nothing to increase old growth.” Since this policy has not had the desired effect, the Forest Service said, it recommends in favor of the more industry-intensive action alternatives.
Moreover, the Forest Service was required to monitor pollution under the purview of the old plans. The draft plan, however, replaces numerical standards and hard limits with qualitative descriptions such as “at risk.”
Such descriptors are hard to define and provide leniency for logging projects to be approved, Juel said. And too much sediment running into streams from these logging operations can damage or destroy habitat for many native fish, environmental groups say.
In a phone interview with the Statesman, Juel lamented what he called the “new corporate reality that everything should be open to logging.”
Glossing over potentially devastating climate impacts
The Clearwater forest region is the southernmost part of one of the world’s largest inland rainforests. With rain comes growth, and with growth comes carbon storage. According to Environment America, the Nez-Perce Clearwater has some of the best carbon storage potential east of the Cascades.
The proposed logging would include cutting trees more than 20 inches in diameter (ones you can’t wrap your arms around) and cutting mature trees in designated old-growth stands, according to the draft. In addition to eliminating or degrading habitat in remote areas that provide wildlife connectivity, this increase in logging would significantly reduce these carbon stores.
Under this year’s newest stipulations for the National Environmental Policy Act, “there’s a clear requirement to closely consider greenhouse gas emissions and other climate impacts” associated with any forest plan, according to Talberth.
But despite the mandate, the draft Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest plan does not acknowledge any contributions to climate change. The draft goes so far as to state, “Abiotic factors, such as climate, are not influenced by forest management at the plan or regional scales.”
According to Talberth, the Forest Service should have conducted a formal analysis of climate impacts and issued a supplemental environmental impact statement in compliance with the new regulations, but “they haven’t done any of that work.”
Paul Busch, membership and development director of Friends of the Clearwater, said the U.S. Forest Service is “avoiding their responsibility to the public by not completing serious analysis of greenhouse gas and climate impacts by the proposed alternatives.”
As a response, Friends of the Clearwater wrote a grant that funded an independent analysis of climate impacts. The group hired the Center for Sustainable Economy to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with logging, grazing and road building. The preliminary analysis took about three months.
“If our small organization can do it, we know the federal bureaucracy should be able to do it,” Talberth said.
The report found that the revised forest plan would cause emissions of at least 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide in the most industry-intensive alternative. This would be equivalent to putting 250,000 new cars on the road.
“It’s pretty alarming, the level of emissions that are going to be generated by this forest plan if they don’t change it,” Talberth said.
The center’s report also said the industrial activity proposed in the plan would make the land more susceptible to heatwaves, droughts, water shortages, wildfires, wind damage, landslides, floods, warming waters, harmful algae blooms, insects, disease, exotic species and biodiversity loss.
By the end of the calendar year, the Forest Service is expected to update the draft plan and environmental impact statement to incorporate public feedback.
Talberth said he’s doubtful there will be meaningful changes in the final proposal. “I’m assuming that they’re not going to do that,” he said.
Peterson, however, promised that his agency is working on it. “The Forest Service is a bunch of people that want to see the right thing happen on the land,” he said. “We want the land to be in a healthy condition, there for future generations.”
According to Peterson, the Forest Service received in the neighborhood of 24,000 public comments on the draft environmental impact statement. “So we’re responding to those and taking them into account,” he said.
He added, “there has also been some policy changes, some executive orders,” referring to the NEPA amendment requiring closer consideration of climate impacts. “That sort of thing we are also addressing, and updating our revised plan.”
The release of the final documents will initiate another 60-day comment period, when reactions or objections may be voiced, but only by individuals who have been involved in the process up to date.
“This opens the window for another procedure,” said Paul Busch on behalf of his organization, Friends of the Clearwater.
After that, a 90-day resolution period will begin. The regional forester of the region, Liane Martin, will give the Forest Service directions to resolve the objections and implement new regulations.
According to Juel, if this forest plan were to be accepted as written, it would set a dangerous environmental precedent — showing that a federal agency can outwardly claim to care about climate change up until that principle stands in conflict with corporate interests.
“Now is the time to protect our public forests as carbon reserves, not log them and add to climate dysfunction,” Busch said. As it stands, the revised forest plan is “certainly a moral failure of our public servants to take this climate crisis seriously,” he added.
This revised forest plan will be in effect for a minimum of 15 years. Or if anything happens that mirrors the recent structure, Idahoans could be stuck with this forest plan for the next 36 years.