Tuesday, November 28, 2023

PFC backs Priest Lake island improvement projects

Staff Writer | September 26, 2023 1:00 AM

Earlier this summer, the Panhandle Forest Collaborative took trips to Priest Lake, visiting Kalispell and Bartoo islands to examine the state of the islands as well as observe potential fire hazards.

Those visits prompted the collaborative to write a letter of support to encourage the Forest Service to make needed improvements on these islands — as well as Four Mile and Eight Mile islands — in the name of public safety.

Both islands, which are heavily used by the public, have banned controlled fires for decades. Because of this, the amount of “fuel loading,” or the accumulation of extremely flammable plants, trees and other materials, has been growing worrisome for the collaborative. Many cabins and various other structures are in extremely vulnerable areas of the islands and the collaborative is looking at ways to mitigate those risks.

“There’s concern about wildfire risk to those structures and properties,” said Panhandle Forest Collaborative facilitator Maisie Powell.

In addition to the amount of flammable debris piling up, Powell said there are also a number of hazardous trees that are standing — barely — around both cabins and campsites on both islands.

“The islands could burn extremely hot or a hazard tree could fall on a member of the public,” she said.

Powell said the longer the Forest Service waits to clear these hazards from the island, the worse a catastrophe there will be should a stray spark ignite on either island. Forest Service officials voiced their understanding of the situation and asked to hear the PFC’s opinion on the matter. Additionally, the agency is interested in collaborating with PFC to create ideas for project implementation.

“Due to the classification of the island as Management Area 7, the primary aspect of land management in this area will need to focus on public recreation,” the letter of support read.

The collaborative’s main concern for both islands is safety. Because of this, the PFC’s letter of support centered around removing the hazards surrounding occupied dwellings and frequently-traveled trails on the outer parts of the island.

“The PFC supports removing hazard trees within proximity of campsites and recreation trails in order to improve public safety,” the letter read. “Fuel loads on Forest Service lands adjacent to these properties should be reduced in order to decrease the wildfire risk.”

The collaborative also suggested that the Forest Service remove any non-native tree species on the island, as many invasive locust trees were noticed during the examination of the islands. Because the locust trees grow so quickly, they tend to create dense colonies that can overshade and choke out the native trees of the area, causing them to die.

The PFC also recommended that the Forest Service work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and private landowners to create additional defensible space and prevent any further hazards on private grounds.

“More conversation amongst PFC members will be required to reach consensus regarding any activities within the interior of the islands,” the letter read. For now, focus should be kept on the exterior of the island.

The collaborative encouraged the Forest Service to conduct surveys of all old growth stands, raptor nests or any other sensitive species that may inhabit the islands. While no endangered species have yet been found on either island, eagle nests have been found in the area and bull trout frequent the shores of both islands.

There is currently no funding in place for any projects on the islands, though the PFC hopes that will soon be figured out so work can begin as soon as possible. The collaborative also voiced the importance of community outreach to hear from regulars who frequent the island on what they would like to see done on the islands.

The Panhandle Forest Collaborative was created to assist agencies by bringing balanced approaches to timber, wild ecosystems and recreation and to contribute to the sustainable social, environmental and economic viability of our region. The PFC focuses on issues on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, primarily within the Sandpoint and Priest Lake Ranger Districts and a portion of the Coeur d’Alene Ranger District. Their goals include reducing litigation, promoting sustainable operations, enhancing travel and recreation opportunities, maintaining infrastructure for timber and recreation, and conserving native ecosystems. The PFC works to build consensus recommendations for projects and forest plans that address these goals.

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