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Timber policy envisions aggressive aspen harvest

Under a new 10-year county forest policy, older stands of aspen will be harvested aggressively to clear out the proverbial dead wood. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The Hubbard County board approved a comprehensive timber policy Wednesday that will put twice as much wood on the market in an effort to harvest geriatric groves of aspen trees.

A stakeholders committee has been working on a 10-year plan that updates the 2002 plan the county paid thousands of dollars to commission.

"We got you guys for free!" board chair Dick Devine told the loggers who attended Wednesday's meeting.

Humor aside, Devine thanked them for their service and commitment to managing county forestland for the future.

"We will double the harvest the next five years," from 2,500 to 5,000 acres a year, said Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier. Then the harvest "will significantly come down" over the next five years after that, but still be above present day harvests.

"We figure we have a 10-year window to harvest our overly mature timber," Lohmeier said. "It will get us back into the ballpark" of having a mix of old and young trees.

But the aggressive harvest schedule comes with a price. Lohmeier said his current staff couldn't handle the additional workload of appraising additional sales and monitoring them, of surveying the land and getting the parcels on the market.

"I don't want to add staff just to lay them off in five years," commissioner Kathy Grell said.

Lohmeier estimated the office would be doubling its output.

"We have foresters working for the county that don't have a sale," commissioner Cal Johannsen questioned.

Lohmeier said that's often because multiple staff members work on a sale, yet only one name goes on the appraisal.

The county manages 140,000 areas of tax-forfeited land.

Lohmeier said the state recommends each forester manage 600 acres of land. With the workload of the added sales, each forester could have almost twice that, he said.

"Each forester brings in $250,000 of revenue," Lohmeier said. Adding a new staff member would bring in additional revenue to justify the hire.

Brian Bignall, a forester for Potlatch, agreed. He said the county simply cannot handle the additional workload without hiring more staff.

Grell also suggested starting a timber endowment over the next five years with the excess funds.

Lohmeier said that could be tricky, because by statute, much of the funds are committed.

Up to 30 percent goes for forest redevelopment, planting, site preparation and management, he noted. Another 20 percent goes to the recreation department.

Commissioners have voted to disburse the remainder among the county, townships and school districts. Only 20 percent of the profits go into the general revenue fund, commissioners agreed, and those funds could be earmarked for an endowment. But the monies restricted by statute could not, they agreed.

The board left partially open the issue of hunting cabin leases, which will be dealt with separately, not as part of the county's timber policy.

But no more tree stands will be allowed on county land and current stands that are nailed or bolted to trees may be removed.

Loggers said they damage the trees and the logging equipment.

But the issue of policing the existing stands and making sure they're taken down was another political hot potato the county wasn't willing to catch.

One logger said if a timber sale involves a deer stand, loggers usually work around it.

And loggers said they didn't want the responsibility of removing existing stands - or facing possible retaliation from deer hunters.

The board decided to let the stands deteriorate with time and not actively enforce the new policy. But trees will be marked with waterproof cards indicating the stands don't meet county standards.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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