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The United States Forest Service severely damaged a forest road and trail in Northwestern Idaho earlier this month, raising serious questions about the agency’s ability to care for federally-managed lands.

During the first weekend in June, several members of Northwestern Gold Prospectors Association (NWGPA) planned to attend a gathering to prospect private claims in the Bedrock Gulch and Eagle Creek areas. When the prospectors arrived, Forest Road 152 was blocked with cement barricades and hundreds of felled trees.

The news was first reported by Shari Dovale of Redoubt News.

Photographs from that day show large logs laid crosswise and laterally on the trail, covered with hundreds of large pine branches and sticks, making it both dangerous and impassable. The section of the road along Eagle Creek was also blocked with large logs spanning its entire width, along with sticks, branches and debris, some of which appears to be spilling into the creek.

According to Bob Lowe, founder and past president of NWGPA , the USFS barricaded the road, considered to be a firebreak, because they lacked the funds to repair damage on the road which had occurred due to flooding and erosion.

“The road had a couple of small washouts, but was still usable for hikers and people on ATVs,” Lowe explained to Watchdog. “The road was regularly accessed by hunters and ATV clubs who used it for the multiple uses it was meant for.”

Lowe also said that the USFS blamed the prospectors for “unauthorized” repairs which some ATV clubs had previously made on sections of the road.

The NWGPA has used the roads in question in order to access privately-held claims. Many of the prospectors have simply walked the trails which, according to Lowe, were “level and shaded, and easy to hike for our elderly members.” He says they always abide by a strict code of conduct and follow Forest Service rules.

“The claims in that area have been mined for over 150 years and the trails up there lead to multiple use lands,” he said. “At the top of the ridge is a game trail that we follow. That has been obliterated.”

In digging for answers as to why the barricades were created, Lowe discovered that federal definitions and “procedures” are being used to justify the extreme damage done to the trails by USFS.

The office of Raul Labrador, a GOP Congressman from Idaho who represents their district, assisted the NWGPA in getting through to the USFS. Kevin Knesek of the USFS Idaho Panhandle division responded with an email explaining the agency’s rationale for barricading the roads. Despite generally unimpeded access in the past, USFS in the email claims that a “Notice of Intent” (NOI) is now ‘encouraged’ to gain legal access to FR 152.

“The East Fork Eagle Creek area is a popular location for recreational mining/prospecting, and we administer numerous requests each year for utilization of closed Forest Service roads to access claims,” Knesek wrote. “Access on closed routes is encouraged to be requested via a Notice of Intent to mine (NOI), which provides the Forest Service a consistent request mechanism, and the claim holder non-discretionary consideration of his/her request.”

Knesek also cites the need for road repairs, for which he casts blame on the miners and others who have used the road.

“In fact, there was even evidence in the Spring [sic] of last year that people were attempting to reconstruct the road in some areas,” he said. “This reconstruction was not authorized, as there was no approved Plan of Operations and associated NEPA to authorize it.”

But it appears that the designation of the road as a “firebreak” is the key justification for the extensive damage caused by the barricades and downed trees. USFS regards “fire management” features to be temporary, thus, requiring them to be “reclaimed” after they have served their purpose.

“Last summer, due to fire activity in the Eagle Creek area, the Forest Service bulldozed a fire line along what was the lower stretch of Forest Road 152, and widened a non-authorized user-created trail in the area of Bedrock Gulch, which feeds into East Fork Eagle Creek,” Knesek wrote. “The Forest Service is obligated to reclaim disturbances associated with fire management, and as a result course woody debris (large logs) were placed over the areas bulldozed and/or widened. Additionally, where possible, the fire line surface was brought back to a state which would give it a chance to weather more naturally.”

On the other hand, Bob Lowe says that historically the prospectors and the Forest Service have enjoyed a cooperative relationship, but that in recent years it had become less cordial and more unpredictable.

“There are a number of people in our local USFS office who I like and respect, but in the last seven years the agency has hired a bunch of interns just to come out and take videos and pictures of our activities,” Lowe said. “We would see them standing around with their cameras and clipboards, and we started getting complaints of ‘significant surface damage’ being caused by relatively small prospecting efforts. We got complaints about tiny holes left in the ground where someone with a metal detector would dig up a bottle cap. One report was for cutting a few lower branches of a small tree.”

Considering the extremely high standards of care the USFS expects from citizens who enter national forests and use roads and trails for recreation, it appears that its own standard for environmental stewardship is abysmal.

The photographs provided by members of NWGPA reveal extreme levels of environmental disruption and damage to vegetation, and potential devastation to Eagle Creek. A historic game trail used by elk, deer, and other large mammals, it is now a maze of logs and branches dangerous to all but the very smallest animals that inhabit the area.