The U.S. Forest Service is crafting two new alternatives for its revised Blue Mountains Forest Plan, based on a year’s worth of feedback from the public.
Details are sketchy, but supervisors on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests say these alternatives will emphasize restoration in order to keep the woods healthy and lower the risk of potentially devastating wildfires.
Each alternative will be fully analyzed in the agency’s final Environmental Impact Statement, due out later this fall. A draft EIS for the Forest Plan was released in 2014, which was so thoroughly criticized that the feds spent all of 2015 re-engaging with local communities on how to improve the documents.
Tom Montoya, Wallowa-Whitman forest supervisor, said a recurring theme in those meetings was to adopt a more “hands-on” approach to land management that would make the forests safer, more resilient and productive.
“These alternatives really try to do that, and they try to do it at a different pace and scale,” Montoya said.
Comments made at the public meetings also emphasized the need to protect watersheds and the environment, Montoya said. Any new restoration proposals would still have to comply with existing laws, making forest management an exercise in compromise.
Forest plans are the guiding script for achieving goals and desired conditions in each national forest. Though the Blue Mountains Forest Plan is being authored under one umbrella, each forest will have its own individual plan. All together, the Blue Mountain forests comprise 4.9 million acres across Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington.
The plan has three stated goals: to promote ecological integrity, social well-being and economic benefits. While it does not approve any specific management projects, it does set numerous desired conditions for things like fire protection, recreation, access, scenery and timber harvest.
The Forest Service typically updates forest plans every 10-15 years to account for new science. However, the current Blue Mountains plan hasn’t been revised since 1990. In its draft EIS, the three forests came up with six total alternatives that try different ways to bring the myriad of forest uses into balance.
It didn’t go well. Of the 1,100 written comments that were submitted, most were overwhelmingly negative. At that point, the forest supervisors decided to hold a series of 24 meetings with more than 700 people from around the region who aired their concerns. Montoya said it was a valuable experience that helped them evaluate possible changes.
Two new alternatives are now being developed, building upon the preferred alternative and their draft analysis. Montoya said these alternatives aim to increase the pace and scale of restoration — especially the second of the two, which would attempt to treat all “suitable acres” over the life of the plan. “Suitable acres” refer to general forest that isn’t protected by wilderness, riparian or other special designations.
In order to do that, the forests estimate they would have to treat 114,666 acres per year for 15 years or 86,000 acres per year for 20 years. Montoya said they would not be able to work at that aggressive a pace with their current staff and budgets, and would need outside help to get the job done.
“We’re trying to move the desired conditions to where they need to be on the landscape,” Montoya said.
Increasing timber production alone won’t be enough, Montoya said. The forests will need to find other creative ways to deal with its backlog of overstocked vegetation. Prescribed burning, biomass production, livestock grazing and non-commercial thinning could also be part of the treatment.
Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, said it is important to see that the Forest Service is taking its re-engagement with the public seriously. But as of right now, Smith is unsure if the new alternatives will actually bring any new solutions to the table.
“It always comes down to the details,” Smith said. “If you’re able to increase the land base for management, you can develop projects that are responsible but also support the economic needs of the local communities.”
County commissioners from Eastern Oregon have previously rejected every alternative for the revised Forest Plan, saying they fell well short of management goals. Mark Davidson, Union County commissioner and chairman of the executive committee for the Eastern Oregon Counties Association, said the group will take a close look at the final EIS after its release and will carefully consider whether their constituents’ concerns have been addressed.
“Our counties in northeast Oregon are intermingled and dependent on each other. When one of our economies is damaged, it has a ripple effect throughout the region,” Davidson said. “We don’t want to see further erosion of our communities.”
Davidson pointed out that Union County alone has lost at least three sawmills as timber production has fallen. That’s led to a loss of jobs in a once-crucial industry.
Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens said residents also are sensitive about managing the potential for massive wildfires. They want to avoid a catastrophe like the Canyon Creek Complex last year near John Day.
“We’ve been extremely lucky on the Umatilla. But your luck can only last so long,” Givens said. “I want to find out what exactly (the Forest Service) means by more restoration, what are those projects and what could they include.”
Once the final EIS is released, there will be an objection period through the winter. A final Record of Decision could be done by as early as spring 2017. Montoya said the final decision ultimately falls upon the shoulders of Regional Forester Jim Peña, who could adopt bits and pieces from any of the proposed alternatives.
Montoya said the Forest Service will share information in future newsletters to keep stakeholders informed. No final decisions have been made yet.
“We’re not going to be able to make everyone happy, but hopefully people will at least be able to appreciate that the Forest Service is listening,” Montoya said.