SUPERIOR – They’re frustrated and disgruntled here in Mineral County, and they’re not big fans of the United States Forest Service.
Paltry timber sales in a hurting county in which more than four of every five acres is controlled by the Forest Service are a big part of the reason, a roomful of seething locals told Tim Garcia, who was finishing his first week on the job as the new supervisor of the Lolo National Forest.
“The dollars are there. How can we make this work?” asked Kevin Chamberlain, the Mineral County extension agent. “Show us how. We don’t speak your language. We’re not part of your big green machine.”
Garcia was in town Friday at the invitation of the county commission and the Mineral County Resource Advisory Group, or McGRAG. He was accompanied by Superior District Ranger Tawnya Brummett and his new boss, Region 1 Forester Faye Krueger, who took part in a similar meeting in September with Garcia’s predecessor, Debbie Austin.
A crowd of 75 joined them, spilling out of a commissioners’ meeting room designed to hold 49.
“This is a jump off the high dive, but you know what? It’s what my job is. It’s my job to spend time with you all and to understand what’s going on, so I can help the ranger’s staff out here understand how to prioritize resources,” said Garcia, who most recently worked in Washington, D.C., as a legislative affairs specialist, working on fire management and the national recreation program.
“It’s not that we don’t have the desire or the interest,” he added. “It’s a capacity issue, and we’re making the best resource allocations and prioritizations based on what we think can get accomplished.”
The major point of contention in these parts is the $22 million Cedar-Thom project. It’s an integrated forest restoration project proposed in 2009 for the Cedar Creek and Thompson Creek drainages south of Superior.
“We’re still waiting for them to render a decision and get something going,” County Commissioner Roman Zylawy said.
Krueger said Cedar-Thom is undergoing a fisheries review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and she has committed a biologist at the regional office to help with that. The Forest Service listed Cedar Creek as a priority bull trout watershed. If the project clears that hurdle, it will next go through the agency’s objections process.
Krueger chafed at Tricon Timber owner Ken Verley’s characterization of the process as a stalemate and that the Forest Service operates with a “fear factor” of litigation.
Cedar-Thom is on her priority list, Krueger said, “but we do have to go into a decision understanding there will be challenges in the courts. It doesn’t scare us, but it prepares us, and we want to be prepared.”
“When was the last time we got litigated in Mineral County?” asked Verley, who took part in the conversation via speaker phone from St. Regis because of a family emergency.
“We’ve had two timber sales where we’ve had support from the Sierra Club as long as Tricon Timber bought the sale,” he said. “We work well with the environmental groups. We’d like to follow the collaboration process and we’d like to move forward, but the people on the ground need support from you folks at the top. They don’t want to hear rhetoric. I don’t want to hear rhetoric.”
Zylawy said it doesn’t sit well with him that the Forest Service decided against harvesting the remnants of the West Mullan wildfire that had downtown Superior on edge last summer.
“Meanwhile, the state of Montana is getting their wood out and private landowners are getting their wood out because they’ve got to beat that deadline before it’s not harvestable,” he said.
Brummett explained she made the decision at the district level not to pull her environmental analysis team off three big landscape projects it was working on to look at a smaller salvage project that had potential legal challenges.
Zylawy began the meeting with a statistic that hits home with Mineral County. According to a Forest Service report that came out last September, timber sales in northern Idaho rose 18 percent in 2012-13. In the same time frame, they dropped 42 percent in western Montana.
“We’re getting frustrated with our poor county relying on timber and none of it’s able to be harvested,” he said.
The whole Lolo National Forest is overmature, said Jim Arney of the Forest Biometrics Research Institute.
“It’s not growing, it’s declining,” said Arney, who lives in St. Regis and has been doing forest inventories and long-term sustained yield planning for 45 years.
“It will burn, and we’re talking about the (Forest Service) budget being all tied up in fire? That’s called reactive planning. They have to do proactive planning, which means they’ve got to start cutting trees,” he said.
Krueger urged the principals involved to follow up Friday’s meeting with a council involving Garcia and Brummett to collaborate on a plan to specifically address Mineral County’s concerns. Zylawy and fellow commissioners Laurie Johnston and Duane Simon were eager to participate, as were Angelo Ververis and Josef Kuchera of Tricon, who are both on the regional advisory group.
An initial meeting was set for next Thursday at the Superior Ranger Station.
Chamberlain said all the county can do is hope that Garcia’s appearance on the scene will lead to more timber harvests.
“We’re optimistic. We have to be,” the extension agent said. “That’s why you haven’t seen us in court. We choose not to litigate. We choose to do things with a handshake. We don’t want to act that way, but we feel as though we’re being pushed to that to gain significance, to gain relevance.”
Even lawmakers’ hands are tied in the face of Forest Service decisions, Zylawy argued with a quiver in his voice.
“We vote for them, we vote for Congress, but somebody in the Forest Service gets to make the decisions that we can’t even raise our families on,” he told Krueger and Garcia. “That’s where we want the interest to be pounded in your minds when you’re in Missoula thinking about projects for us.”