[Vision2020] Bear Creek Canyon trail plan deserves stronger analysis

Moscow Cares moscowcares at moscow.com
Fri Apr 22 11:06:56 PDT 2016

Courtesy of today's (April 22, 2016) Moscow-Pullman Daily News with thanks to Brett Haverstick.

His View: Bear Creek Canyon trail plan deserves stronger analysis
In 2015, citizens filed a public records request with Latah County to learn more about its intentions to construct, reconstruct and develop the abandoned rail line in Bear Creek Canyon to extend the Latah Trail. There were strong concerns over whether or not federal laws were being followed before more work was completed.
Wild steelhead are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They spawn in Bear Creek Canyon. The entire 11-mile stretch of West Fork Little Bear Creek is federally designated critical habitat for the species. Idaho Department of Fish and Game has an active restoration and steelhead-monitoring program in the Potlatch River drainage. Bear Creek is considered one of two major steelhead-producing drainages in the watershed. Public records revealed that the project file for canyon work surprisingly made no mention of threatened wild steelhead populations or their critical habitat designation.
We also discovered the Federal Highway Administration (Latah County applies for federal dollars through the Idaho Parks and Recreation grants program for partial trail funding) did not analyze the project's potential impacts to imperiled steelhead. The ESA mandates a Biological Assessment be prepared. Citizens filed a notice of intent to sue, and the feds quickly conceded the law had been broken. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service soon revealed that along with threatened steelhead (plus the critical habitat), federally protected Spalding's catchfly "may" also occur in the project area.
After the county amended its grant application to entail just 1.4-miles of railbed paving, the Highway Administration ceased consulting with biologists and stopped preparing the legally mandated BA. The feds then released a "no effect" determination and issued a Categorical Exclusion for the project under the National Environmental Policy Act. Citizens filed a supplemental notice of intent to sue, and the government acknowledged the law had been broken again. The entire project area (4.75 miles) is now being reviewed. Federal funding (grant dollars) has been suspended until the analysis is completed.
Our citizen group is greatly disappointed with Latah County. Records revealed that county grant applications claimed there were no streams, rivers, wetlands or floodplains in the project area, that wildlife or wildlife habitat would not be negatively impacted, and historic or archaeological resources would not be affected. The county has obviously not been honest with the Highway Administration. Grant requirements also state that the IDFG must be notified if the project will impact fish and/or wildlife. A phone call to the agency revealed they were not aware of the project.
Genuine public involvement is also sorely lacking. The January "public meeting" held in Moscow was biased, and mostly staffed by the Latah Trail Foundation. The land owned by the county in Bear Creek Canyon was donated by the foundation to further develop the trail. This is not an objective process. There has never been a fair, unbiased discussion on the future of the canyon.
The further construction and reconstruction of the railbed, and the development of Bear Creek Canyon is an important county land-use issue involving federal taxpayer dollars. Once the BA is completed, it's imperative the Highway Administration prepare an Environmental Assessment under NEPA that analyzes the potential cumulative impacts of the entire project. A series of alternatives needs to be offered for public comment. Public meetings could also be scheduled around the area - without trail advocates acting as facilitators or meeting hosts.
There are many citizens who oppose further development of this semi-wild canyon. Numerous people appreciate the Latah Trail, myself included, but its extension deserves objective and thoughtful analysis, and a robust public involvement process that offers people equal opportunity to shape decisions.

Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .

"Moscow Cares" 
Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho
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