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Downriver residents, Lemhi County Commissioners as well as Sheriff Steve Penner, County Emergency Services Director Janet Nelson, Forest Service officials and congressional representatives met Monday afternoon, May 8, in an effort to find a way to prevent future wintertime Salmon River Road closures. The meeting, in the largest room of the Brooklyn Annex, took place in the form of a Workshop, not a public comment venue. Commissioner Rick Snyder said the purpose of the meeting was to make sure plans are put in place so that in the future the health and safety concerns of downriver people are properly served.

The road is owned by the Forest Service and there is no written agreement between Lemhi County and the agency regarding road maintenance or snow plowing yet, the county is concerned about the wellbeing of downriver residents. At one point this past Winter the county took the initiative to open the road which had been closed by the Forest Service. The equipment and man hours to plow through the slides and rocks resulted in a county expenditure of $37,000.

Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark addressed his statements to the more than 50 downriver residents in attendance. He said the Forest Service does not have enough money to maintain the roads that are in this national forest. The number of road miles quoted later in the meeting was 4,000. He said during the last five years 44 percent of his annual budget for roads has been spent on the river road. He said the agency is certainly aware of health and safety issues of the residents and he asked that the safety of road crews dealing with constant avalanche conditions also be recognized. Given the limited budget and personnel resources Mark said his road closure decision was based on health and safety. He doesn’t see weather conditions improving. “We don’t have averages anymore, we have extremes.”

Forest Service North Fork Ranger Ken Gebhardt clarified the difference between road maintenance and snow removal saying maintenance funds cannot be used for snow plowing.

County Commissioner Bret Barsalou asked if the Forest Service had any emergency funding in its budget and Mark said the only emergency funds are for road damage.

The commissioners’ prime focus was centered on preventing circumstances that occurred this year from happening again. Barsalou acknowledged that road closures are the supervisor’s call as to safety, and he hoped that in the future those calls might be mitigated with the county. He asked what kind of resources the Forest Service could provide the county if the same situation happens again.

Mark commented the agency did spend $25,000 helping out this year and that when health and safety issues come up he always consults with the county and County Sheriff’s Office. He said every dollar spent in the wintertime is one less dollar available for the Summer season.

Barsalou asked if unsafe conditions are declared, will the county be kept out? Mark’s response was the agency didn’t keep anyone out. He said residents were allowed in and out and mail deliveries were coordinated with Sheriff Penner. It was an enter–at-your-own-risk situation. Barsalou said if the county sends Road and Bridge crews downriver, and the agency has the resources, he would like to see Forest Service crews working with county crews. Mark said the Forest Service doesn’t have a road crew in the wintertime.

Road and Bridge Supervisor Chris Fredrickson told Mark he is faced with the same situation as far as funding, timing and equipment. He said his department was also spread thin last winter. He was complimentary of the Forest Service dispatch help with vital radio communications between his crews, the downriver site and town.

Barsalou said the county’s main concern is the residents and whether, if needed, Search and Rescue crews or other emergency services can get to downriver calls.

Bureaucracy was mentioned as a bottom line culprit in the local situation. Barsalou said he couldn’t accept someone downriver experiencing illness or death because of no accessibility. He said that if any fatality were to occur he doesn’t want the cause of death to be bureaucracy.

Barsalou asked Mark if the county board could do anything regarding the agency’s funding and Mark answered it is a matter of there being no more money in the agency. He said the dollars come from congress.

A federal agency can’t lobby congress for money however; Barsalou said the commissioners can and he indicated they are willing to make that effort. He feels that there is currently an opportunity to exert some influence.

Amy Taylor of US Senator James Risch’s office volunteered the information that the Idaho delegation’s ambition is to get firefighting funds removed from the Forest Service budget and placed under the auspices of FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) National Disaster budget. That would free the agency to use its funds on forest management. She said the drive is still active and almost tallied enough votes to accomplish that goal last year. Another push is on for this legislative year

The end result of the Workshop was a commitment from the Forest Service and the County to meet and formulate an action plan to follow and a more cooperative approach in the event wintertime road conditions once again become a downriver issue. Idaho State Senator Steve Thayne was in attendance and asked how he can contact the action plan committee and was asked to stay in touch with the county.

Commissioner Rick Snyder felt the meeting had covered the county’s main points and Commissioner Chairman Ken Miner said ultimately it is about the people who live downriver having the access they deserve. He liked the fact everyone was willing to, “… come to the table and make it work.”

In addition to Thayne and Taylor, other congressional representatives included Craig Quarterman, Ag and Natural Resource Director for US Representative Mike Simpson, and Mitch Silvers, State Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Environment for US Senator Mike Crapo.

Even though it was frustrating for downriver residents to not have the opportunity for input they followed Workshop rules and withheld comments until after the meeting when they were able to mingle and talk with all officials.

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