ARLEE – Approximately 160 ponderosa pines and Douglas firs along Jocko Canyon Road east of here have gotten a reprieve.
Lake County wants the trees, located in the county’s right-of-way, cut down and removed for safety and maintenance reasons.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” county commissioner Ann Brower says.
But many residents along the 2 1/2-mile stretch of the scenic road, such as Leslie Millar and Don Winston, question the need and want most of the trees to stay put.
On Tuesday, the residents got their way, at least for now. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Forestry Department, which had agreed to have the trees removed at no cost to county taxpayers, backed away from that after learning local residents were fighting it.
“We were unaware anyone had an issue with it,” CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said. “When we were informed of that, we decided to step back.”
The CSKT Tribal Council made the decision Tuesday morning.
Winston, a retired University of Montana geology professor who has lived in the canyon for half a century, did the informing Monday when he drove down to where tree-removal equipment had been moved into the area. Winston parked, and waited for someone to show up.
The tribes are having work done in nearby areas scorched by wildfire, the reason the equipment was there, it turned out – and also the reason county officials saw a chance to broker a deal with the tribes to get the trees cut and removed for free.
“I told them, ‘Here’s a sad story,’ ” Winston says he told two CSKT Forestry employees who arrived later. “I said we don’t want the trees cut before people can try to deal with this rationally. We had a nice, congenial conversation. They were more than accommodating.”
Winston’s concerns were passed on to Jim Durglo, head of CSKT’s Forestry Department, who filled the Tribal Council in on Tuesday morning.
Among the questions raised by Millar and Winston is whether the county can offer the timber to someone other than the property owner.
“It’s our understanding that the county has an easement through our land,” Winston says. “I told them if the trees need to be cut, they need to be cut, but we own any trees that have been cut, and for someone to remove them is another matter.”
Winston says Millar and her husband put up signs on the marked trees on their property stating that removing them – “Not cutting them, just removing them,” Winston says – would be illegal.
Brower says the trees present a danger to snowplow operators, and that there are so many of them that the road remains shaded much of the day.
Snow doesn’t melt very fast, she says, “and we have to sand up there well into spring.”
Whether the moisture comes from melted snow or rainwater, the shade also keeps the road surface from drying out, and standing water leads to degradation problems, Brower adds.
Finally, she says, tree removal will reduce fuels for wildfires in the canyon.
“The commissioners went up and looked at it last year,” Brower says. “Trees are leaning over the road, and there’s one tree actually growing in the road. They’re in the county right-of-way, and it’s strictly a maintenance and safety issue. That has to take priority over aesthetics.”
Millar and Winston say there are only a handful of trees, not 160, that present a potential danger to snowplow operators. They also question why, if shade is an issue, so many trees on the north side of the road that they say provide minimal blockage of the sun on the road surface have been targeted for removal.
Millar says she is also concerned that some of the trees marked for removal are on a steep hillside that runs down to the Jocko River.
Will that contribute to erosion into the water? she wonders.
Large spray-painted orange “X’s” appeared on 100 of the trees last year, alarming Millar, Winston and others in the area, who learned the county planned to have them cut down.
They met with the Lake County commissioners, who also traveled to the area last May to take a first-hand look at the road and trees.
“A group of us formed who are living on the road, 40 people signed up, and we asked the county to slow down and have a public hearing,” Millar says. “We felt there were maybe four or five trees they could justify removing. But they had trees marked that were eight feet off the roadway.”
When dozens more marked trees were added last week without a word to the residents along the road – 40 to 50 of them “majestic,” according to Millar – it raised concerns even higher.
“If trees need to be cut because of safety, that’s one issue,” Winston says, “but if they’re being cut out of spite, that’s another issue. All we’re told is this is the way it’s going to be, and there’s no negotiation room. We feel they went behind our backs.”
Brower says the commissioners are aware of the opposition, have met with the property owners, listened to their arguments, have visited the area, and have concluded that maintenance and safety take precedence.
However, with the tribes bowing out, the project is “definitely on hold,” Brower says.
“It’s not one of our priorities,” the commissioner says. “It was just a matter of timing, of having the opportunity to get it done now at no cost. That opportunity isn’t there anymore.”
But if the chance arises “in another way, at another time,” she says the county will go ahead with having the trees cut.
“At least that gives us time,” Winston says. “My interest is seeing what’s best for the safety of the road, and the beauty of the road – and it is a beautiful, scenic road. There are trees that should probably have to go. There are trees we can agree on. But when you’re also marking trees 10 feet off the north side of the road, I don’t feel those are a danger to the road or anyone on it.”