The 26-pound 5,600-page Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, released in late June of this year by the U.S. Forest Service, could partially determine the economic direction of Wallowa County for the foreseeable future.
The plan covers the Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur and Umatilla national forests. The revision process took 14 years to accomplish and the plans were last updated in 1990.
Although the revised plan called for nearly twice the amount of timber harvest, other parts of the revision, including wildlife management, reduced and more stringent grazing regulation and road access, are giving county leaders cause for concern.
At a public forum in September, Wallowa County Commissioners Todd Nash and Paul Castilleja explained the county’s response and sought input on the plan. Around 25 people attended.
Specific citizen objections included the wolf management directives that seemed to treat all wolves as endangered species, even though wolves in Wallowa County were removed from the endangered species list.
Nash noted that no one from the conservation community attended the meeting.
“They weren’t precluded from coming to make comments,” he said. “It would have been nice to have an eclectic mix of Wallowa County represented there, but that’s what I see at these meetings unless (senators) Wyden and Merkley show up.”
Nash also gave credit for the county’s stance and knowledge of the plan to Bruce Dunn, the recently deceased commissioner-elect and president of the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee.
“He probably spent more time than any two people on the plan, which says a lot, because a lot of people have dedicated a lot of time to it over the 14 years,” he said. Commissioner Susan Roberts called the revision a long-running process in which the county served as a cooperating agent, which is a tool the county used to be part of the conversation.
“I’m not saying that this worked exactly as it was supposed to –– it didn’t,” she said. “But we have been able to supply our opinion and analysis of things.”
In fact, she believes the county’s status in the plan wasn’t always taken into consideration and listed the lack of coordination by the U.S. Forest Service as frustrating and a major concern.
The county has worked on its objections to the revision along with its Natural Resources Advisory Committee since the plan was released to the general public several weeks ago. She showed the massive revision plan with various sections marked with tabs.
For example, in the county’s view, the socio-economic portion of the document seemed overly worried about possible scenarios decades into the future if timber harvests were substantially increased. Roberts called the views “erroneous,” and said, “I have it listed under my complaints about the plan as crap.”
“They’re worried that if they take more timber off the three forests than we’re used to having for the last 20 years, we’ll all become crazed wild animals and suffer the consequences,” she said.
The commissioner explained that the report said the release of significant amounts of timber would put affected communities into a boom-or-bust cycle as harvests would decline after about 20 years.
Roberts noted that that the forests grow at a rate of 700 million board feet per year, and a harvest rate of 300 million board feet per year should be sustainable.
“What it says to me is that, ‘you’re on the bottom rung of the ladder; we’ve shoved you down that far, and we don’t want you to take a step to the second rung.’ It’s insulting to the people who live and work in these counties, and it’s insulting to anyone with a modicum of intelligence who reads it.”
Roberts said the plan is full of potential economic benefits if all aspects of it are adopted, but the Forest Service added the caveat that it is also dependent on budgetary and regulatory conditions.
Darilyn Parry Brown, executive director of the Greater Hells Canyon Council, said her group plans to file objections to the plan as well.
“It’s unacceptable that the plans double the volume of logging on our forests while removing all meaningful and enforceable protections for old growth, critical habitats, federally listed threatened species, roadless areas and riparian zones,” she said.
Brown called the plans “bad news’ for the area and said that enforceable standards to protect rare and threatened wildlife, old-growth trees, native species and roadless areas.
“The Blue Mountains contain important and increasingly rare roadless areas that are hot spots for biodiversity and important wildlife connectivity corridors,” she said. “Without enforceable protections, it is only a matter of time before they are gone forever.”