The overall consensus was that a breath of fresh air is blowing across the landscape of forestry issues in Eastern Oregon.
County Commissioners from six eastern Oregon counties discussed the changes and other topics with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) in Enterprise recently.
The consensus is the worm had turned particularly with regard to views of forest fire management due to catastrophic fires this summer and their impact on more urban areas and urban values.
“I don’t think Oregonians want their forests destroyed by runaway fires every summer and their air-sheds choked to the point that they can’t breathe,” Walden said. “I think we have real momentum to do good public policy.”
The public policy changes sought by commissioners is centered on addressing dangerous natural disaster situations before they become catastrophes and getting the right people to the table to discuss forest management.
Commissioners have long been frustrated when agreements reached with the U.S. Forest Service are discarded by other agencies that were not present when discussions took place.
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said she recently wrote to Regional Forester Jim Penya complaining that the USFS was not working with the county on the Blue Mountain Forest Plan as originally promised.
Forest plans describe the social, economic and ecological goals of National Forests and provide frameworks for future management decisions.
“In January, when we met in Pendleton, they handed us a grazing portion of the forest plan that looked workable,” she said. “When we got it in June, it was totally changed; nothing in it was like it was in January.”
Roberts is not the only commissioner fed up with the process.
“I’ve told Penya I’m not going to make a decision until the regulatory agencies (such as National Incident Management System and U.S. Fish and Wildlife) put their rules on the table, because every time you wait until the regulatory puts in their rules, you have an entirely different document,” said Union County Commissioner Steve McClure.
But the last few weeks have seen an abrupt change in the attitude of forest managers. Commissioners reported that in August, Penya was uninterested in their issues and let them know that conversations were over and USFS was moving forward with forest plans re-written by agencies.
Just two weeks later, commissioners reported, Penya seemed in the mood to negotiate.
“He called me and asked me about my opinion on how to do things,” said McClure. “He asked me — that’s a real change in status. He is really concerned about moving this thing forward. I brought up the issue on grazing. I was going to ask him for half a billion board feet for Boise Cascade before it was over ... he was pushing hard to see that something got done.”
Walden said he had recently spent parts of two days in the company of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zenke, and the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tony Tooke touring Oregon fire sights.
“Tooke is all about getting in after these fires and all about trying make these systems work,” Walden reported. “I raised some of the issues with him about the Blue Mountain Forest Plan, especially as it relates to the grazing issue, and he understood the issues and wanted to be helpful.”
It’s not just conversation with a forester familiar with the issues that was at play, Walden said. It was clear to him that new appointments made by the Trump administration has changed the landscape.
“Frankly, spending a day and a half with Zenke reminded me of how much power had been given the executive,” Walden said. “Finally we have a hand on some of those levers.
“It’s a different attitude now (with agencies, such as USFS, NIMS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife). It’s about how can we help. I feel like for the first time there is a new opportunity to really have an impact with these agencies.”
The commissioners determined to “strike while the iron is hot” for forest management change and sit down as a group and create a document that spells out desired changes. This information will go to Walden, and the commissioners will seek a meeting with Penya and agencies as soon as possible.
Commissioners were quick to point out that their local forestry representatives had been interacting well with them — to the limits of their authority.
“I will not throw our forest supervisor under the bus,” said Grant County Commissioner Boyd Brittan. “I think he got thrown under the bus by the regional forester. We’ve got some good district rangers, the problem is up above and they have to deal with (their own rules) by law.”
County commissioners from eastern Oregon shared common problems at a September meeting with Congressman Greg Walden in Enterprise. These issues include cattle grazing in forests; how buffer requirements for streams that support fish will be implemented and managed; thinning of forests; reclaiming and replanting after fire in a timely manner; and not allowing fires that began in the wilderness to become so large they are unmanageable.
An example of a forest management problem was that presented by Baker County Commissioners Mark Bennett and Bill Harvey. The commissioners called their watershed issue “an emergency.”
The 10,000-acre watershed for the city of Baker is choked with “a huge amount of fuel,” said Bennett.
“If it burns, it will burn in an afternoon, and it will cost the city and county a fortune,” he said.
The problem, said Harvey, is that the Forest Service and city have a joint management agreement going back 100 years and the forest service is not managing it actively. Less than 10 percent of the forest has been thinned, he said.
“Historically we had 50 trees per acre in the watershed, Harvey said. “Now we have 1,000 trees per acre –– most of them on the ground.”
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts addressed a post-fire issue, revealing that two years out from the Grizzly Bear Fire, the money for Sheriff’s Department and Road Crew assistance on the fire, and the reforestation plans, were still not addressed.
FEMA developed a pilot project for six megafires in 2015, Roberts said. The pilot project was touted to expedite refund for expenses of local agencies and fast-track replanting and reseeding.
“We’ve never seen a penny,” Roberts reported. “We got notice last week that although our tiny little culvert project is ready to go, it is stalled because FEMA is working on hurricanes and is backlogged.
“We’ve also been told that any work that we did (on our own) will not be covered ... because you can’t do anything until they give you the go-ahead. We had grass that needed to be replanted to keep the hillsides from collapsing in the heavy winter that followed the fires –– we had to do that.