Forest Service streamlines projects as budget cuts deepen

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Forest Service projects with the Superior and Ninemile districts are slowing down as winter sets in and fire crews are leaving the area District Rangers, Carole Johnson from Superior and Ann Hadlow from Ninemile reported at a recent Mineral County Commissioners’ meeting held on Nov. 16.

“The budget is a little tight and we are currently downsizing seasonal fire crews,” said Johnson. The recreational budget will also see a squeeze going into 2019. The Forest Service focus is starting to change and as a result, the departments may rely more heavily on fire crews to help with recreational projects during the shoulder season.

“We are not hiring as many trail crew people like in the past and are relying more on fire personnel for help,” reported Hadlow.

There has been an upper management shift and the first priority is now being placed on 2019 Forest Service Flagship Targets which are aimed at improving forest conditions with less focus on recreational programs. These targets are looking at acres improved, fuel management and mechanical treatment for a more fire adapted forest, Johnson explained

“However, we do understand the need for good customer service for our recreational users and that will continue to be address,” she said. Currently, the target volume is approximately 19 million board feet of timber, however this could change, as “we could be receiving new executive orders from the president.”

One recreational opportunity currently being address involves the 90,000-acre Redd Bull project. There is a collaboration between the Forest Service and the Mineral County Resource Coalition’s Recreation Committee to address signage in this popular recreational area located south west of St. Regis.

Lookout Ski Resort is expanding its hill and the area is popular for cross country skiing as well as snowmobiling, “as more people use the area, we are getting a few social conflicts,” said Johnson.

They are trying to create a “gentleman’s agreement” between the skiers and snowmobile clubs with the idea of motorized use on one side and non-motorized on the other side of the basin, “along with signage to get it posted where they can ride and where to ski.”

Johnson said negotiations are going well with the clubs which include the Idaho snowmobile club and the Nightriders club. However, snowmobilers who are not associated with the clubs, “don’t seem to pay attention to the signs,” she said.

Another program feeling the budget crunch is the Youth Conservation Corps or YCC. This is a summer work program for ages 15 to 18. In the past, Mineral County has hired about five area youth to help with projects like clearing trails, building bridges and other forest service work. The Sanders County YCC program is larger and hires around eight to 10 students, using Secure Rural Schools Resource Act Advisory, or RAC, funding.

Johnson asked the commissioners of Mineral County would also consider using RAC funds to help with the YCC?

“It’s an important program for students, with jobs and career experience,” said Commissioner Laurie Johnston. “This is a way for projects to continue to get done which otherwise may not.” She agreed to the use of some RAC funds to hire as many students as possible.

Johnson said the regional office has about $400,000 set aside for these types of things. By using those funds, it would help the district meet the Flagship Targets.

Hadlow reported that they are currently wrapping up Soldier Butte and should be done by the end of December. She also talked about using the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) policy on Jam Cracker and sharing positions with the Bitterroot National Forest to create more efficiencies. Jam Cracker is located between Superior and the South Fork of Nemote Creek, and Johnson is looking into working with the State on this 83,000-acre project with reforestation. “They have a lot more freedom and wouldn’t have to go through the same contracts as we do and they would be able to reach the local contractors,” she said

That’s because the GNA allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with States to perform watershed restoration and forest management services. Johnson also mentioned that once Title III funds are transferred to the county they become county funds and are no longer federal funds. Her understanding is they can then be used as a match for federal grants as long as they are used for what the money is appropriated for including Firewise Community Plans and Wildfire Protection Plans.

Title III funds are a part of the Secure Rural Schools Act which was reauthorized and signed into law by the president in March, 2018.

By utilizing programs like GNA and Title III Funds, the districts hope to take some of the price burden off of them in order to better meet targets and continue to provide good customer service to local recreation enthusiasts.

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