North Idaho’s counties have a considerable stake in the management of the national forest areas they host. Counties depend on the U.S. Forest Service for multiple important services: Reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire, fighting wildfires effectively when they inevitably occur, maintaining and enhancing forest health, fostering and developing forest-related economic activity, and insuring forest recreational uses and access. The greater the area covered by national forests in a county, moreover, the more that county will feel these needs.
The Forest Service’s organizational structure bears considerable relevance to the performance of these critical services for the counties that host national forests. Nowadays, there are three national forests stretched across the five northern-most counties of Idaho, one very big and two much smaller. The big one is called the Idaho Panhandle National Forests (2.4M acres), it being an organizational consolidation of what used to be used to be the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe, and Kaniksu national forests. One smaller forest is a segment of the Kootenai National Forest, which occupies eastern portions of Bonner and Boundary counties. Kootenai NF is administered out of the Forest Supervisor’s office in Libby, Mont. The second smaller national forest is a segment of the Clearwater National Forest, in the southern most portion of Shoshone County.
Each national forest is directed by a Forest Supervisor, who in turn administers a number of Ranger Districts, each headed by a forest ranger. Ranger districts represent the primary unit of Forest Service operations and the chief point of contact between most of us and that national agency. As a U.S. Forest Service web page described, “Most of our boots on-the-ground activities occur on the ranger districts...” The district ranger is both the officer in charge of a district’s national forest area and the chief conduit for bringing that district’s forest management needs to the Forest Supervisor level’s attention. Yet, the allocation and location of ranger districts may not correspond well to the counties that host a national forest.
A case in point is Shoshone County. Shoshone is the largest in land area of the five northernmost Idaho counties. Shoshone County’s 1,202,687 acres of national forest area represent fully half of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ total land area — the other four counties (Kootenai, Benewah, Bonner, and Boundary) comprising collectively the other half. Moreover, Shoshone County, at 71 percent, has the largest proportion of land area occupied by national forest of the five northern counties. Yet, Shoshone County has no district ranger and no district level office located within its boundaries.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests is administered through five ranger districts — the Priest Lake RD, Sandpoint RD, Bonners Ferry RD, Coeur d’Alene River RD, and the St. Joe RD. The latter two RDs, have two administrative locations: the CDA River RD’s are at Fernan and Smelterville; the St. Joe RD’s, at St. Maries and Avery. In both cases the district ranger works chiefly out of the larger offices sited in Kootenai County (Fernan) and Benewah County (St. Maries). Shoshone County therefore nets only a single deputy-ranger-level office, at the Smelterville Forest Service station. In short, the Panhandle National Forests’ five district rangers are all sited chiefly outside Shoshone County — with two in Bonner County (at Priest Lake and Sandpoint), one in Boundary County (at Bonners Ferry), one in Benewah County (at St. Maries), and one in Kootenai County (at Fernan). The Supervisor’s office is in Coeur d’Alene, in Kootenai County. Shoshone County’s 1.2M-acre share of the Panhandle National Forests’ vast area gets the day-to-day attentions of a deputy-level ranger only.
It didn’t used to be this way. At one time Shoshone County alone hosted a minimum of at least five ranger districts including Avery RD, Red Ives RD, Wallace RD, Clarkia RD, and McGee RD, with additional work stations at Round Top, Calder and Shoshone Camp. Not too long ago, a fully staffed ranger station, headed by a district ranger occupied handsome quarters in Silverton, near Shoshone County’s county seat in Wallace. Back then, Forest Service staff, it may be noted, lived in Shoshone County, shopped at its groceries, stores, and garages, sent their children to local schools, and participated in community life. Such an arrangement enhanced that agency’s personnel’s stake in the protection and wellbeing of our county. No less importantly, enduring relationships were built on a personal level.
And yet now, Shoshone County — in which 71 percent of the landscape is national forest and which accounts for fully half of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ land area in northern Idaho — lacks a fully staffed district ranger’s office and a fully empowered district ranger in charge. In addition the Calder, Round Top and Shoshone work centers are gone. This is a regrettable public service deficiency on the U.S. Forest Service’s part and calls for reform and change.
Robin Stanley is retired superintendent of Mullan School District is a charter member of the Not Without A Fight Coalition.