The U.S. Forest Service and Idaho have forged 10 agreements for logging and restoration projects on federal land in what officials say could become a template for other Western states to create jobs and reduce the severity of wildfires.
Under the deals, Idaho foresters will administer timber sales on about 10,000 acres (40 square kilometers) the federal agency has on its to-do list but can't complete because the money for the work is instead going to fight wildfires.
So far this year, the cost of that fight has surpassed $2 billion — more than half the federal agency's annual budget — during one of the worst fire seasons on record in the West.
The state work involves managing timber sales to a lumber company after determining how much is available and sometimes even marking what can and can't be cut.
Money generated from the sales goes into accounts in the national forest where the timber was harvested, less expenses incurred by the Idaho Department of Lands for administering the sales.
The federal money is held in accounts to be used for additional work, which can include thinning projects to reduce wildfire threats and projects to improve habitat for fish and wildlife.
The federal-state partnership is possible under the Good Neighbor Authority passed by Congress more than a decade ago that initially involved Colorado and Utah. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded the measure to include other states.
Michigan, Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada and in particular Wisconsin have moved ahead with the partnership. But officials say Idaho — where 38 percent of the land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service — has made rapid progress.
"Idaho has really stepped up to fully embrace that ability for us to work with our state partners to get more work done," said Intermountain Region Forester Nora Rasure, whose area includes 53,000 square miles (137,000 square kilometers) of forest lands in Utah, Nevada and portions of Wyoming, Idaho and California.
Government, industry and environmentalists have developed a collaborative approach in Idaho following years of stalemated litigation over forests that were sometimes consumed by flames as decisions were delayed.
"They're building agreements on being able to manage the forest in such a way that you can get timber off of them but you don't compromise environmental values," said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. "It's not a panacea, but it's better than forest wars. That exhausted a lot of people."
Watchdog groups say they're concerned the policy might have more to do with avoiding environmental regulations than enhancing forest health. But for now, they are cautiously supportive.
The Idaho Department of Lands manages 2.4 million acres (9,700 square kilometers) of state endowment land it received at statehood to primarily benefit public schools. About a million of those acres are forested.
Tom Schultz, director of the Idaho Department of Lands, said the work with the Forest Service helps Idaho by reducing the threat of giant wildfires spilling onto state and private forest land, and removing stands weakened by insects or disease to help prevent the spread of those problems to state and private lands.
Another major benefit is jobs. Shultz said an analysis suggests 12 to 15 direct and indirect jobs will be created for every million board feet of lumber harvested.
The watchdog groups wonder how well Idaho can mesh its forestry program, which is geared to maximize revenue over the long term, with the Forest Service's multiple-use mandate that includes timber sales, recreation and wildlife habitat.
"We'd like to see them recognize that you can still have a profitable timber sale while protecting some of those sensitive resources," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.
The Idaho Department of Lands has received a three-year grant for $900,000 from the Forest Service for the program and Idaho lawmakers have authorized $250,000 from the state general fund. State officials say the goal is to have the program paying for itself with profitable timber sales in three to five years.
"We want to significantly increase the number of acres being treated," Idaho State Forester David Groeschl told Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and other elected officials during a Tuesday meeting of the Idaho Land Board, which previously approved entering into the agreements with the Forest Service.
The 10 projects in Idaho are in various stages, with two currently being logged and a lot of curiosity about how state-managed timber sales on federal land will turn out.
"There's probably a natural tension between agencies, but I think that we're making real progress in getting beyond some of that," said Jane Darnell, a deputy regional forester with the Forest Service whose area includes northern Idaho. "We'll get there."