Rounding the bend as we hike up Weitas Creek, my eyes discerned an odd silhouette protruding from a trailside Western red cedar about fifteen feet up. Vegetation in shadow often tricks my eyes, so I have learned to note shapes without jumping to excitement. Just as I noted that this shadowed branch had stump ends like rounded ears, the branch twitched, I walked into dense forested shade, and my eyes adjusted. “Take the dog,” I whispered to my husband, dropping the leash and grabbing the camera slung across my torso. Two pine martens, who had heard us first, were frozen with surprise in that cedar. While the cautious one crept down the tree and disappeared down the forested slope, the curious one remained, as captivated with us as we were with him. When my husband slowly ventured past with our dog further down the trail, the marten followed the line of sight around the tree trunk, unburdened by gravity and fascinated with the uninterested, fifty-pound dire wolf under our mastery. We studied each other curiously for the next few minutes, us with delight and him with caution, until he finally decided to inch down the tree and disappear after his kin. –Katie Bilodeau
The Clearwater Basin of North-Central Idaho is home to far more than just charismatic megafauna. A lush inland rainforest with life that you would see on the rainy Pacific Northwest Coast—Western red cedar, western swordfern, and lichen—create a canvas upon which smaller mammals like pine marten paint their inquisitive forays. This particular canvas captures the some of the wildlands of Weitas Creek, a roadless area that should be protected as Wilderness. Friends of the Clearwater (FOC) highlighted Weitas as Wilderness in the biggest comment process of this past year—the Forest Service’s proposal to revise the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests land-management plans.
The draft environmental impact statement for the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests land-management plan revision was perhaps the most significant comment period for 2020 because of the legacy the Forest Service threatens to leave in the Clearwater Basin. The current forest plans are over 30 years old, so the revised plan will likely govern these forests for a generation before the Forest Service revises it again. Last month, the Lewiston Tribune reported that, this fiscal year alone, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests have sold 84.5 million board feet of timber under the current plan, “the highest posted since 1991 and more than all but three national forests.” At a time when scientists have released studies that highlight how conserving carbon sequestering forests, particularly forests in the Pacific Northwest, can mitigate global warming, the Forest Service has proposed a next-generation forest plan to cut these trees down for short-term timber profits.
Old growth refers to mature forests and their contents: closed overhead canopies, lichen, and dense vegetation that can hide fauna, decaying trees for fisher dens, standing snags for pileated woodpecker nests and foraging, and downed logs for lynx dens. Old growth represents an intricate connection of biological life. As scientists study the biodiversity created by legacies of ecological disturbance, the Forest Service egotistically recategorizes some old legacies as “undesirable” in its proposed revision for the forest plan. “Undesirable” means the Forest Service will destroy these legacies by selling them to the timber industry to cut down.
Friends of the Clearwater is doing everything it can to fight for old, mature forests in the revised forest plan. Our staff primarily authored a 378-page comment on the draft forest plan and provided the Forest Service over 160 scientific articles and other information for the agency to consider. The newest member of our staff, Jeff Juel, is authoring a paper on old growth to serve as a scientific literature review for our allies striving to protect old-growth region-wide and to introduce the best science to the government managing our mission area. Old growth is often found in roadless areas. Katie Bilodeau updated our roadless report this year to address bureaucratically complicated evolution of how the Forest Service treats roadless areas when reviewing their eligibility for Congressional designation under the Wilderness Act. Your support has been what makes all of this possible.
In addition to policy work, this year FOC has advocated for wild places on a project-by-project basis in a political climate increasingly hostile to all things wild. COVID-19 didn’t stop the Forest Service from ill-conceived projects in the Clearwater Basin, but it also didn’t stop us from advocating for wild values and science-driven decision-making. In 2020 the Forest Service introduced 13 project proposals that would log over 17,000 acres and burn over 134,000 acres across the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests. Reflective of the political times, many of these proposals are not grounded with the best available science. FOC commented on all of these projects, introducing science to dispel assumptions that logging is “restoration” and that the agency has underestimated likely impacts. FOC convinced the Forest Service to conduct the necessary environmental analyses for three logging proposals where the agency was on the cusp of approving these projects without environmental review. Our administrative advocacy influenced the Forest Service to give the public more information and provide a meaningful opportunity to comment on these proposals. In response to our objections on other projects, the Forest Service has corrected various analytical errors. Membership funding enables us to watchdog agency actions armed with the best science and with an eye toward government transparency.
Agency decision-making with utter disregard for science brought us into court this year. In spring of 2020, FOC and allies settled a lawsuit with Wildlife Services, the federal wildlife-killing agency, for assisting the State of Idaho with its wolf-killing program based on outdated environmental analysis. Until Wildlife Services analyzes the environmental impact of its assistance, it agreed to measures such as forgoing lethal methods to target wolves in federally designated wildernesses and discontinuing the use of M-44 cyanide bombs in Idaho. FOC and allies were back in court for the wolverine this past spring as well; the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had failed to act on a 2016 court decision instructing the agency to consider protecting the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. In response to our lawsuit, USFWS agreed to consider the petition, but declined to list the wolverine this past fall. FOC and allies have already notified the USFWS of our intent to sue on this decision because it ignores and misapplies the best science, and we will soon be in court again on behalf of this species for whom time is running out. We are currently in court over the Lolo Insects and Disease Project, a 3,400-acre logging project on the Clearwater National Forest, where the sediment produced from logging and road construction will have a profound impact on steelhead numbers already struggling in the Upper Snake River Basin and the project area. Longer descriptions of these lawsuits can be found in our latest newsletter. Thanks to you, we have the resources to take our government to court as a last resort.
We can’t encapsulate our year’s work in two pages. We haven’t mentioned the dozen Freedom of Information Act requests sent this year, the monitoring we’ve done to confirm whether the Forest Service’s representations match on-the-ground conditions, our follow-up letters to the Forest Service, or comments we’ve submitted on regulative and policy proposals. And while a tremendous amount of work awaits us in the new year, we see opportunity and find reason to hope. Everything we do reflects our love for the Wild Clearwater Country and the wildlife, fish, and vegetation that create this natural masterpiece. We recognize the financially difficult times, but hope that if you cannot contribute financially, that you contribute with action and join your voice to the chorus of wild advocates calling on our government to preserve wild places this next year.
We humbly thank you for your continuing generosity and support over the years, and wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. Press here to donate.
Katie Bilodeau, Staff Attorney
Gary Macfarlane, Ecosystem Defense Director
Jeff Juel, Montana Policy Director