At the end of Highway 14 lies the tiny community of Elk City. A three-hour drive from Lewiston, the town is an island unto itself.
Surrounded by the Nez Perce National Forest and Cottonwood District of the Bureau of Land Management, the residents of Elk City live amid some of the most beautiful land in Idaho. Originally a mining camp, its economic foundation has always been tied to natural resources. Despite its geographic isolation, the problems facing the 400 people who live in the area have not gone unnoticed.
The main source of employment in Elk City, like many resource-dependant communities, is a lumber mill. The livelihood of the mill, and ultimately the town, rests in sustaining the health of surrounding public lands which are in dire need of active management. Unless something is done to bring balance back to the co-dependant relationship between communities and forests, the true fate of this community will be left up to Mother Nature and whether or not she decides to send a catastrophic fire down Main Street.
Elk City and dozens of other mill towns across the Pacific Northwest have faced challenge after challenge over the past decade. From attacks on public access to unfair softwood lumber trading practices by Canada, the hits keep coming. It has been frustrating for us to watch mills close due to outside forces we have struggled to combat, but we also have been stirred by the resilience of these communities and their determination to stay alive.
We recently met with Elk City residents to discuss the future of the mill and listen to their concerns. It was an opportunity for everyone to talk frankly about what could be done to help the town, and relay what has been done by other communities in similar situations. There is no quick-fix or silver bullet. Communities must work collaboratively and exhaust every tool at their disposal. For example, one tool authorized by the recently enacted Omnibus Appropriations bill is stewardship contracting.
Stewardship contracting is a collaborative method that brings Forest Service officials and community leaders together for decision-making purposes. It allows the agency to combine timber sale and procurement contracts to complete needed forest health projects, involving communities in responsible forest management and keeping more residents on the job. We are finding that healthy forests lead to healthy communities, and it's important to maintain that. Stewardship contracting has been used successfully by the Forest Service since 1987, and the Omnibus Bill has extended its authorization from 2004 to 2013.
Ultimately, the fate of the stewardship program is up to the Forest Service and BLM, and the Bush Administration has recognized it as a valuable instrument to help improve the health of 73 million acres of forest at risk for catastrophic wildfires. Consulting with communities in the decision-making process would not be a first for the Forest Service. It has the Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) system as a successful working model to draw from.
Passed by Congress in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self- Determination Act of 1999 has tasked RACs with helping the Forest Service determine the most cost-effective projects for a region. By providing an opportunity for federal, state and local officials to come together and decide what management actions will benefit communities and public lands simultaneously, stewardship contracting is an avenue to maintaining the crucial relationship that Elk City residents have with the Forest Service and BLM.
Change can be difficult to endure, but Elk City and other mill towns should not feel they are alone in the struggle. We will keep working to help communities and the Forest Service tackle these problems. It will take time and effort, but in the end Elk City has the ability to write its own destiny.