By Steve Tool
Wallowa County Chieftain
Wallowa County commissioner Todd Nash has heard a lot of lip service from politicians and government officials who claim they want to change management policies on federal forest lands. He hasn’t seen much action until now.
A 14-year collaborative effort that resulted in the Blue Mountain Forest Plan Revision has made its way to the nation’s capital. The plan revision includes three national forests: The Wallowa-Whitman, the Malheur and the Umatilla.
Nash went personally to see at least some of the process of debating the plan at the federal level. The trip took place during the week of Dec. 11-15.
Nash said that before the revision left departed Oregon, the plan saw some significant revision, particularly in the area of grazing. The original revision called for more stubble height in grazing allotments, which would have caused ranchers to pull their cattle off allotments significantly earlier.
Nash said Wallowa County, the cattlemen’s association, USDA rangeland scientist Chad Boyd and Oregon’s U.S. Rep. Greg Walden weighed in heavily on that portion of the plan.
With the changes in place, Nash asked U.S. Forest Service Region 6 forester Jim Penya if a county commissioner could accompany him when he made the plan revision presentation to USFS Chief Tony Tooke in Washington, D.C.
Pena agreed and Harney County Commissioner Mark Owens was appointed for the job. Nash attended meetings elsewhere as well as a number of follow-up meetings with the head of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which oversees the USFS and also representatives of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and a wrap-up with Tooke.
The group also met with Walden and staff from Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
Much of the agency talk revolved around issues facing ranchers and loggers. These included the threatened species status of plants such as Spalding’s Catchfly and fish species, including Bull Trout.
“We’re looking at setting up distinct population areas where they might be de-listed in an easier manner,” Nash said. “We have a thriving population of both those species in Wallowa County, and we should be proud of the fact that we have so many endangered species that thrive here, and we should be acknowledged for the good stewards we are.”
Nash said that probably the most significant results from the meetings were a possible reassessment of federal grazing policy, including closed, but most especially, vacant grazing allotments.
“That was on their radar all the way through,” Nash said. “They wanted a priority list of the allotments we’d like to see reauthorized.” He added that the county has already compiled such a list and would return it soon, along with lists from Baker and Union counties.
The USFS has lost a significant number of employees, so the implementation process of new policies may be slow. However, the Oregon Good Neighbor Authority Master Agreement, signed by Gov. Kate Brown in 2016, should help move the process along as it was designed to facilitate county, state and federal agencies collaboration to manage national public forestlands and watershed health through funding and skills sharing.
Nash was surprised to hear that the lawsuit filed by the environmental groups Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild to stop implementation of the Lostine Corridor Public Safety Project had reached the ears of the highest levels of natural resources agencies in the government.
“The fact that the categorical exclusion was challenged in this case, and the frivolousness of it –– they’re really frustrated with groups like Hells Canyon and Oregon Wild, and the conduct they’ve presented there,” Nash said.
The trip may sound like it was expensive, but because of pooled costs, Wallowa County’s share only came to $700.
“For what we achieved, it was worth it,” Nash said. “Our lobbyist out there, Jay Sullivan, would like us to come back. Now that we’ve got a foot in the door we need to keep up those relationships and the lines of communication open.”