- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Two conservation groups have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal government over a proposed plan to expand and repair a backcountry airstrip in a wilderness area in northern Idaho.

Wilderness Watch and the Friends of the Clearwater sent the notice Monday to the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and two other agencies.

The groups tell the Lewiston Tribune (http://bit.ly/1vfb3HO) that the expansion of Fish Lake Airstrip in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area will harm threatened bull trout in Fish Lake. Plans call for lengthening the runway by about 350 feet.

“Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have stated in the past that habitat degradation and increased fishing access to the lake from the existing airstrip already poses a significant threat to the small population,” said Gary Macfarlane, with Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater. “It makes no sense to go ahead and expand the airstrip and threaten the species further.”

The groups said federal agencies need to do a biological assessment before doing the work, and that airstrip improvements could affect the area’s wilderness character.

“Protecting this unique, rare aquatic system in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is more important than trying to facilitate more aircraft use,” said George Nickas with Wilderness Watch. “The Forest Service needs to do an adequate analysis and ensure the wilderness is protected before this project moves forward.”

The airstrip predates the 1964 designation of the wilderness. The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest said that the airstrip has become shorter than its historic length, making it more difficult for airplanes to take off in the thin mountain air.

Officials also said that elk wallows have created divots in the runway, rodents have built tunnels that leave holes, failed drains have left boggy areas, and trees and brush have grown in on the airstrip.

Because the airstrip is in a wilderness area, the Forest Service is proposing using hand tools, manual labor and stock animals to do the work.

“I think there is some confusion on the scope of the work,” said Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, noting no decision has been made about the proposed project. “Some people think it’s a lot bigger project than it is. We are not doing a major dirt moving thing.”

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com