Tribe responds to forest service brief on trail

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The U.S. Forest Service issued a Briefing Paper on June 27, 2018, that provided a “summary/key points” and “clarity of facts.” Unfortunately, the Forest Service failed to tell the entire story and thereby is misleading citizens.

The Forest Service and National Parks Service analyzed this route in the 1980s and determined it to be detrimental to recovering grizzly bears. Ignoring this advice, Congress designated the PNT as part of the 2009 Omnibus spending bill without any consultation with tribes or local communities.

The Kootenai Tribe takes pride in working with our community and federal agency partners to find solutions. To accomplish this, we drafted this response so that interested parties will have a complete understanding of the issues related to the PNT.

The Briefing Paper points to a single collaborative group that desires a reroute of the PNT. When Congress designated the PNT, it did so without considering tribal sovereignty, cultural resource protection or local community input. For this reason, numerous individuals, entities and governments have expressed concerns regarding the current route. It is unclear why the Forest Service has singled out this one group, but the result minimizes the extent of concern with the proposed route.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is the primary party requesting a reroute. As the Tribe has previously explained to its federal partners, the current PNT traverses some of our sacred sites and religious use areas and increased use will likely have negative impacts on our Treaty resources. The Forest Service does not address damage to our sacred sites and tribal religious exercise in the Briefing Paper.

Besides disregarding tribal concerns about the current route, the Briefing Paper’s “clarity of facts” is misleading regarding the Forest Service’s ability to manage the trail.

The Forest Service states that the PNT’s user capacity is estimated at 400 through-hikers per year and that it can manage the trail accordingly. The Forest Service fails to disclose that approximately 520 parties (average of 20 parties per week over the grizzly bear season from April 1 to Nov. 15) within each Bear Management Unit per year constitutes a high-use trail. In other words, if the Forest Service manages the PNT to allow 400 through-hikers per year, only 120 local parties of hikers, berry pickers, hunters, etc., will be allowed to use the trail before it becomes high use.

Thus, we believe the threshold for high use will be easily met, because the local party allocation is only seven to eight parties per week.

Once the trail becomes high use, it triggers a recalculation of the amount of grizzly bear core habitat under the standards and guidelines in the current Land Use Management Plans for the Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle National Forest (Forest Plans). The reduction of core habitat means the Forest Service is required by law and its own Forest Plans to identify other areas of core habitat to replace what was lost. That means other roads may need to be stored or decommissioned or high use trails (PNT and others) may need to be regulated to decrease public use. The PNT, therefore, must be managed to reduce the use, not just the capacity, to limits below the high use threshold.

The Forest Service is misguided in its belief that it can manage the PNT to meet multiple uses without changing the Forest Plans or modifying access elsewhere. As anyone who has dealt with the agency in the past ten years can attest and as the Forest Service itself continuously states, the Forest Service budget, unfilled personnel openings, and maintenance backlog make proper management of the National Forest System an ongoing challenge.

The question remains, how does the Forest Service intend to manage the PNT so that it stays below the high use threshold requiring a core habitat recalculation? And if it believes that high use trails do not impact grizzly bears, how and when does the agency intend to change not only the current best available scientific information, but the standards and guidelines in its current Forest Plans?

It is disappointing that the agency is playing political games on an issue of such importance to the Kootenai Tribe, local governments and other interested parties. We encourage all forest users to obtain the full story, rather than take this agency at its word in this biased Briefing Paper.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is based in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

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