- Associated Press - Friday, October 21, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The relationship between federal land management agencies and Western states to find collaborative ways to manage large swaths of forests and rangelands is improving but could be better, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said.

“I’m seeing it improve,” said Otter. “It’s long overdue. I would also tell you that it’s not unique to Idaho.”

Otter and U.S. Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons addressed a two-day workshop of the Western Governors’ Association’s National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative that ended Friday in Boise.

The plan is to bring local, state, federal and private entities together to find collaborative ways to attain the dual goals of creating jobs while also reducing the threat of forest fires and improving rangelands.

“Through trust we can start to find ways to work together and maybe build common ground,” said Lyons. “And it’s desperately needed. I think that’s where we’re headed. I hope.”

About 75 participants took part in the workshop that’s the second for the initiative launched in August by the 19-state Western Governors’ Association. The plan is in its early stages with no specific items at the moment, but that could change.

“We’ve got to have key performance indicators,” Tom Schultz, director of the Idaho Department of Lands, told fellow participants on Friday. “We’ve got to figure out what does success look like, and we’ve got to shoot for those targets.”

Participants discussed some of the problems facing federal land managers trying to balance competing interests. Mary Farnsworth, supervisor for the Panhandle National Forest in northern Idaho, said some restoration projects start out with large acreage but end up with small acreage after everybody weighs in.

“There’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle of the right-sized project of doing more on the landscape,” she said.

Otter has complained bitterly about the federal government’s sage grouse plan that he said eliminated Idaho suggestions, and has mounted a legal challenge contending that sage grouse-related restrictions imposed last year will impede economic development.

But he praised a new program called the Good Neighbor Authority that allows Idaho to partner with the U.S. Forest Service to auction federal timber. The auctions are first approved by the Forest Service after going through environmental reviews.

The state held the first auction of federal timber late last month, with 4.5 million board feet on 216 acres selling for $1.4 million.

“This is a big deal,” Otter said. “I believe we’ll be able to prove once and for all that we are responsible, that we care about this land in Idaho.”

Some workshop participants cited environmental laws as needing to be reformed, or the creation of an arbitration process to limit lawsuits.

Several conservation groups took part in the workshop, but not some of the more fierce environmental groups that are often in court, notably Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.

Lawsuits by that group are typically aimed at forcing federal agencies to adhere to environmental laws. Their most recent lawsuit filed earlier this month contends the Forest Service is violating environmental laws by issuing grazing permits to central Idaho livestock growers with a long history of violating permit restrictions.

The Western Governors’ Association plans a third workshop on its initiative in South Dakota in December.

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