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Funds for forest grooming good for
wildlife, water, fire prevention

By Becky Kramer
Spokesman Review

Two local forests could receive more than $90 million over the next decade for projects that would create jobs in the woods, reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires and improve wildlife habitat and water quality.

The Colville and Idaho Panhandle national forests were among 13 national forests chosen for millions of dollars worth of restoration projects.

On the Colville, the money will be used to create open, parklike stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine in dry areas of the forest through thinning and small, controlled fires. On the Idaho Panhandle, the focus is restoration of the Kootenai River watershed.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the awards last week, which include first-year funding of at least $1million in new appropriations for the Colville National Forest and more than $300,000 for the Idaho Panhandle.

The funding is expected to continue in future years. It would include new appropriations as well as matching Forest Service dollars from existing national, regional and local budgets, said Jason Kirchner, a Forest Service spokesman.

Backing from community groups was essential to securing the restoration money, which went through a highly competitive selection process.

“It wasn’t just the Forest Service pushing this along. It was the whole community working on their issues,” Kirchner said.

The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition worked on the Colville proposal, while the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative was instrumental in the Idaho Panhandle’s proposal. The two groups seek to find common ground among the timber industry, environmental groups, tribes, local governments and other interests.

“Caring for the forest where we live and work and play is a shared responsibility,” said Patty Perry, administrator for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, which is part of the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative. “This will offer a great opportunity for our community.”

If the project receives full funding over the next decade, it would result in more than $20 million in restoration work in the Kootenai River watershed.

Projects to improve water quality would benefit the river’s struggling populations of white sturgeon and burbot, a freshwater cod. Replanting whitebark pine trees would help grizzly bears, who eat the trees’ calorie-laden seeds. Reducing the risk of large wildfires in the watershed that provides Bonners Ferry’s drinking water is also a priority.

The work is expected to create about 144 full- and part-time jobs. One local sawmill is evaluating whether it can add a second shift in the future, said Dan Dinning, a Boundary County commissioner.

On the Colville National Forest, treating overcrowded stands would also create new jobs in rural communities. If fully funded over the next decade, the projects would create more than $70 million worth of restoration work.

The goal is to return the Colville forest to more natural conditions, creating stands of trees that are better equipped to survive droughts and insect attacks. Trees logged during that process would be sent to local sawmills or turned into energy in Avista Corp.’s Kettle Falls biomass plant.

Over time, habitat would improve for animals such as Canada lynx, grizzly bears and pileated woodpeckers. Thinning dense thickets of trees will also increase deer and elk forage and winter habitat.

As overall Forest Service budgets have declined, money earmarked for restoration has also decreased, said Mary Farnsworth, supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. “We would not be able to do this to this extent without this funding,” she said.

At the end of 10 years, the forest ecosystems should be healthier and more resilient, Kirchner said. The changes will benefit people who like to recreate in the woods, as well as plants and animals.

“If we have a healthy forest that’s functioning, then everyone gets to enjoy it,” Kirchner said.