Letters From the West

Tidwell said farm bill gives Forest Service more tools but he wants more

Forest Chief Tom Tidwell, right, talks with Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Forest Chief Tom Tidwell, right, talks with Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the permanent authorization of stewardship contracting could give his agency, which manages 20 million acres in Idaho, a more powerful tool for restoration.

Tidwell, speaking at a conference of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership at the Riverside, said the new authority, added as a part of the recent farm bill, will allow the agency to write contracts to harvest timber, decommission roads, fix wildlife habitat and reduce fire danger for up to 10 years. That gives timber companies, loggers and other contractors enough long-term certainty they can get the investments they need to carry out the work.

Many parts of Idaho that used to have timber mills have forest products. But companies didn’t have the certainty to invest in those areas due to reduced timber sales from environmental constraints (such as water quality and endangered species protection). The efforts of collaborative groups of loggers, environmentalists, local officials and timber companies have laid the foundation for increased restoration work, Tidwell said.

The conference brought together more than 80 of these people and federal and state officials to talk about how they can speed up restoration work.

“I need you, the forests need you, the communities need you and most importantly, future generations will thank you,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell also pointed to a provision of the farm bill that directs governors to identify potential projects 3,000 acres in size where logging and other work can take place under streamlined permitting. These projects can’t cut old growth and have to have collaborative groups behind them.

Tidwell told the conference to think strategically about these projects so they will be successes and lay the groundwork for future projects.

Managing expectations is part of his challenge. Overall, the Forest Service has 35 percent fewer employees than it had in 2000 and 49 percent fewer foresters.

They are doing about the same amount of work as 14 years ago but have been hampered by stopping all projects in August when fire money ran out in eight of the last 10 years. Efficiencies have helped but Tidwell said there are limits.

And Tidwell expects more fires will continue as fuels get drier and fire seasons longer.

“There’s no question that climate change is involved,” he said.

His scientists are now telling him that the increased frequency of disturbances like floods, droughts and extreme weather events are as much of a challenge for managers as warming.

“We can’t restore these forests to the past,” Tidwell said. “We have to restore them to the future.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West