Mary Farnsworth and Cheryl Probert are, respectively, the Forest Supervisors on the Idaho Panhandle and Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. More important is the fact that they, and fellow Payette National Forest Supervisor, Keith Lannom, are using congressionally-blessed Good Neighbor Authority to make historic contributions to the restoration of natural resiliency in Idaho’s at-risk National Forests.
The trio is partnering with the Idaho Department of Lands under the aegis of the 2014 Farm Bill’s Good Neighbor provisions, which permit the Forest Service and Idaho’s state forestry professionals to pool their resources to increase the pace and scale of restoration work in Idaho’s National Forests.
In this interview, Ms. Farnsworth and Ms. Probert describe the purpose and intent of Good Neighbor Authority [GNA from a Forest Service perspective]. Mr. Lannom will be interviewed in the coming weeks. Idaho State Forester, David Groeschl, was interviewed earlier.
Evergreen: The Good Neighbor Authority appears to be one of the best new congressional authorities to increase the pace and scale of restoration in a long time. Are we overshooting the mark here?
Probert: It’s very good news from my perspective. Partnering with the Idaho Department of Lands will allow us to leverage our resources in a way that increases both the pace and scale of forest restoration work in National Forests in Idaho.
Farnsworth: Good Neighbor Authority provides wonderful opportunities for us to do more work on the landscape. Increasing the amount of restoration work on the land creates healthier forests and more jobs in our communities. Combining the expertise and resources of IDL and the Forest Service allows us to accomplish more work. The more work we complete on the ground increases the pace and scale that Cheryl described.
Evergreen: We sense it too, though the Idaho Department of Lands has a fiduciary responsibility to several state trust funds, most notably education, that the Forest Service does not share. Whose mission will you be honoring on Good Neighbor Authority projects?
Farnsworth: IDL and the Forest Service both care about healthy forests, increased restoration, and fire resiliency in north Idaho. We are also committed to jobs in our communities and supporting the infrastructure of our mills. These are common interests that we are working together to achieve.
Evergreen: IDL has expertise in all aspects of forest management that they use to generate revenue for state trust funds.
Probert: That’s correct. By combining our efforts, we deliver increased benefits to the public.
Evergreen: Is it our imagination, or has Good Neighbor Authority quieted public fears of a state takeover of federal forests in Idaho?
Farnsworth: GNA is demonstrating that the state and Forest Service can effectively work together to increase the work we do on public lands. Together we are more effective
Probert: I think that’s true, and I also sense that some of the public frustration with our inability to increase the amount of on work on National Forest Lands has been alleviated as we work with IDL to deliver healthier forests, increased acres treated, and provide more jobs.
Evergreen: Sort of like the cavalry riding to the rescue. It sounds like a really cool opportunity that the state is stepping up.
Probert: Dave Groeschl has demonstrated great leadership and commitment to making Good Neighbor Authority projects successful in north Idaho. With Wapati – the first GNA project sold in Idaho – our Nez Perce-Clearwater staff had completed the fieldwork and environmental analysis. IDL did a fantastic job handling the timber appraisal and auction for us. They will also complete the sale administration work.
Evergreen: That’s what Dave Groeschl [IDL State Forester] told us when we interviewed him. He also described big differences between the first three GNA projects.
Farnsworth: There are significant differences, and that is one of the beauties of GNA. Chery’s crew led the way in Idaho because they had already completed much of the planning work on the Wapati sale.
Evergreen: And your first GNA project – Hanna Flats on the west side of Priest Lake – will take much longer, won’t it?
Farnsworth: We are working through the environmental planning and the public process for Hanna Flats. The initial phases of the project are complete, and the first public meeting was a full house in April. A public field trip occurred June 3. Early and ongoing public involvement is key to the success of our projects. Our collaborative groups also provide critical input and support. Public meetings and input will continue as we move forward with this project.
Evergreen: We attended the meeting you referenced and were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it went. We sensed a real bond forming between your Idaho Panhandle staff and the IDL team. Their joint presentation was well organized and very impressive.
Farnsworth: Yes, Good Neighbor Authority projects are designed to be a cooperative effort between the State of Idaho and the Forest Service. We are demonstrating this partnership with projects such as Wapati and Hanna Flats. IDL and Idaho Panhandle employees are very familiar with this work and are benefitting from learning from each other.
Evergreen: We want to go back to the Wapati project for a moment. We understand the timber sale – a 204-acre commercial thinning – generated spirited bidding from Idaho mills.
Probert: It did. There were five bidders: Alta Forest Products, Bennett Lumber Company, Empire Lumber, IFG and McFarland Cascade. McFarland won with a bid of $1,545120, which was $620,713 greater than the net appraisal price.
Evergreen: Wow! Subtracting IDL and USFS timber revenues and scaling fees, we come up with net program income to GNA of around $1.2 million. Do we have that right?
Probert: $1,252,284 to be precise.
Evergreen: Where does the million go?
Probert: The money goes into a trust administrated by the State. Funds dispensed from the trust will pay for future GNA work, including aquatic and vegetation restoration projects and environmental planning for future projects on or adjacent to the Nez Perce- Clearwater National Forest.
Evergreen: So, unlike routine timber sales, where the money ends up in Washington, D.C., funds generated by GNA projects stay with this forest?
Probert: Right again, work on the ground creates jobs in our local communities.
Evergreen: In addition to the federal timber sale program, it appears there is a new program that puts local knowledge and local people to work restoring natural resiliency in Idaho’s at-risk National Forests. We’ll hazard a guess that an idea that seems so simple on its face is certain to attract its skeptics.
Farnsworth: Through these new Farm Bill Authorities, we now have a new tool from Congress that allow us to do more work leading to healthier forests and fire- resilient landscapes. We expect it to take time for the public to understand that using GNA for projects still meets all environmental laws or regulations. The advantage of using GNA is that it allows a team approach and revenue generated stays locally.
Probert: Good Neighbor Authority and Farm Bill authorities are additional tools for us to use to contribute to the social and economic fabric of our communities. On the Nez Perce-Clearwater we have used stewardship contracting and partnerships to couple forested vegetation restoration projects with other projects that improve resource conditions such as road improvements, wildly habitat improvements, trail maintenance, etc. This “other” restoration work has developed into a bit of a local industry. With GNA, as with stewardship contracting, we put the money generated by the output into other Restoration projects.
Evergreen: So, you’re always planning for outcomes on the landscape.
Probert: That’s true. With Wapati, we are improving stand structure and composition through commercial thinning. This outcome will generate an output, in this case trees that generate income. That income will go back into the ground to do more work. That “other” work also creates jobs and pumps income into our local economies. Likewise, the logging associated with Wapati will generate revenue in a traditional sense, but timber is a by-product of our overall restoration strategy, not the product.
Evergreen: Aren’t you also creating a new mini-industry that will be doing some of the non-revenue generating restoration work, like bridge and road decommissioning and repair, and aquatic restoration, using some of the $1.2 million in program income Wapati will generate?
Probert: The “mini-industry” has always been here, and we want to be careful not to imply that the new mini-industry you reference will ever replace the industry that was based in Kamiah, Orofino and Grangeville 20 years ago.
Evergreen: That’s obvious, but you have thousands upon thousands of acres on the Nez Perce-Clearwater that are well roaded that need thinning to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. By the time you finish with what you can reach, it will be time to return to Wapati to thin it again.
Probert: We do have thousands of acres in need of treatment, not just thinning. GNA will allow us to accomplish more of that work by putting money directly back into the land, leveraging skills to do the work, and accelerating planning for additional projects.
Evergreen: Mary, tell us more about Hanna Flats. This looks to be a different and more complex learning experience than Wapati.
Farnsworth: That’s a nice way of putting it because it will surely be a learning experience for our integrated team. The project area spans about 6,800 acres south of Nordman and west of the Priest Lake Ranger Station. A wide array of forestry techniques will be used to encourage regeneration of western white pine, ponderosa pine and western larch that were the dominant species in the area. The area of learning however is around the use of GNA to accomplish our project.
Evergreen: Replacing disease and fire-prone shade tolerant tree species for more resilient shade intolerants. Standard fare with every National Forest restoration project planned or underway in the Interior West.
Farnsworth: Yes, though, again, GNA allows us to pool resources and funding to increase the pace and scale of work on the ground.
Evergreen: On a scale of one to ten, how would you quantify the increases in pace and scale that you anticipate?
Farnsworth: Ask me that question in a year. By then we will have measurable tangibles, like acres treated, and habitat improvement.
Evergreen: Will you be developing a five-year GNA plan that mirrors your five-year timber sale plan?
Farnsworth: The Idaho Panhandle National Forests has a five-year action plan that identifies outyear vegetation management projects. We will use that plan to identify projects where we will use various authorities that can expedite our work. The 2014 Farm Bill and GNA can help expedite these projects. I do expect some projects, identified in our five-year-plan, will relate specifically to GNA, and I look forward to exploring these opportunities.
Probert: The unseen and possibly not measurable aspect of GNA is the bond that is forming between our two agencies. As with our forest collaboratives, what adds up to eventual success are the trust relationships that develop between the many stakeholder personalities that are at the table.
Evergreen: Idaho Department of Lands Director, Tom Schultz has characterized the GNA potential in what he calls his “moonshot” – a possible 100 million board foot increase in annual log supply 10 years hence. Is this doable?
Farnsworth: The Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands are focused on deliverables – acres treated and jobs created. I would be very reluctant to signal any expectation measured only in board feet.
Probert: I agree. GNA is just another tool – albeit a very good one – in our tool box. And it is a collaborative tool, not a timber tool. But there is a lot of energy in the air and going forward we aim to make the most of it.
Evergreen: Far be it from us to attempt to read Mr. Schultz’ mind before we interview him, but we’d guess he simply wants to set the accountability bar as high as it can possibly be set. Let’s turn to fire borrowing for a moment. What will happen to the GNA joint planning effort during wildfire season?
Farnsworth: We have a fire organization to respond to fires during the summer season. The resource work on both forests is incredibly important. In the event of a significant wildfire season, like the 2015 season, it becomes “all hands on deck.” Both Cheryl and I are committed to supporting the GNA joint planning effort.
Probert: You get the same answer from me.
Evergreen: What about litigation. We expect the usual suspects will sue to test the legal limits of GNA.
Farnsworth: GNA is simply a tool. Completing environmental planning is extremely important. Our employees are extremely dedicated and very skilled in their areas of expertise. Objections and litigation are part of a public process. Any project, including those that use the GNA authority, could be litigated. This adds significantly to the importance of working closely with our collaborative groups and engaging the public early and throughout the life of a project. Public input is extremely valuable to project planning.
Probert: I can only add that Good Neighbor Authority is a big deal, not the only big deal, but a big deal that will only get bigger as we go forward and learn from one another.
Evergreen: And you have a fire salvage sale coming up in June that fits within GNA parameters. What can you tell us about it?
Probert: We do. It is called Woodrat, and it’s on the Lochsa-Powell Ranger District northwest of Syringa. We expect to sell somewhere between three and four million board feet of dead and dying timber under GNA.
Evergreen: This in the aftermath of the 6,500-acre Woodrat Fire that burned in the Lochsa-Powell District in 2015; correct?
Probert: That’s correct. The NEPA work is completed, I have signed the Record of Decision and we expect to sell the sale in June. Woodrat is a cool story. State and Forest Service employees fought the Woodrat Fire side-by-side. Now we are working side-by-side again, this time to compete the post-fire salvage and reforestation work.
Evergreen: Mary, your Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative has been very busy for the last couple of years. You lost some momentum in 2015 with wildfires on the forest. Can you update us on current projects and the search for more collaborative and GNA projects on the Idaho Panhandle?
Farnsworth: We had that “all-hands-on-deck” experience responding to the 2015 fired, but our staff continued delivering an impressive amount of work following the fire season. Their efforts and public involvement led to the forest selling 10 timber salvage sales for 63 million board feet and completing burned area emergency rehabilitation on the landscape. In response to your question regarding collaborative and GNA projects, with our three collaborative groups and five counties, we updated our Five-Year Vegetation Management plan in December. We are currently working on Camp Dawson and Robin Hood projects outside of Bonners Ferry using our timber strike team to accelerate these projects. These projects are in addition to the planned annual program of work for the forest. We recently determined the Jasper 2 project meets the requirements of GNA. We will work with the State to sell and administer the timber sale using this authority. As we work through our Five-Year Plan, we are continuously exploring ways to use Good Neighbor Authority and the 2014 Farm Bill, and to further engage our collaboratives.