ENTERPRISE — Aggressive action to improve forest health, forest habitat, the local economy and to reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfire was recommended in a letter approved by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners at its Wednesday, March 17, meeting.
The letter, addressed to Mark Bingman, of the U.S. Forest Service Wallowa Mountains Office in Joseph, targets the Morgan Nesbit Forest Resiliency Project about 20 miles southeast of Joseph. The project is comprised of about 87,000 acres, located on both the Wallowa Valley Ranger District and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
“I think it’s important that the county has established its coordination status with the Forest Service on this project and that we stay in touch with them at every point during the process,” said Katy Nesbitt, the county’s director of natural resources and economic development who prepared the letter.
She told the commissioners there was one unusual change in protocol with the process, in that anonymous comments were being accepted.
“I think the letter we have is, in my opinion, fine, but my question to you is have we contacted anyone to find out why this new protocol of anonymous comments?” Commissioner Susan Roberts asked.
Commissioner Todd Nash also was curious.
“I was surprised to see that in an email recently,” he said.
Nesbitt expressed her willingness to look into it.
“You can direct me what you want me to do,” she said.
“I think we need to ask someone … as to why this change in protocol is there that’s not been there before,” Roberts said. “I think we need to know in order to at least answer the opinions in there.”
The commissioners approved sending the letter, and at the same time directed Nesbitt to check into the change in protocol.
In the letter, the commissioners expressed their concern that the Morgan Nesbit is a high-priority area for reducing fuel loads and agreed with a 2019 state report recommending “treatment on 40% of a landscape can significantly alter fire behavior.”
The commissioners also expressed concern for the forest ecosystem health. Fir and pine stands are becoming more at risk due to pandemic insect outbreaks as temperatures warm. The conditions affect fish, wildlife and soil health.
“We believe mechanical treatments and prescribed fire can help reset natural processes and increase groundwater and stream levels,” the letter stated.
The commissioners want “natural fire” returned to the Morgan Nesbit “before essential habitat is consumed by escaped wildfire.”
The letter noted that the Morgan Nesbit “has a higher lightning-strike density than any other area on the north end of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest,” making such concerns paramount.
The commissioners offered the help of the county’s Natural Resource Advisory Committee and urged the Forest Service partner with the Oregon Department of Forestry, local youth crews and contractors to supplement data gathering, inventory, monitoring, timber marking and monitoring.
The letter also recommended managing with fire-tolerant species of trees.
“Ponderosa pine and Western larch are currently threatened by grand fir and Douglas fir that normally would be controlled if more natural fire were present,” it stated.
It urged removing grand fir and Douglas fir by prescribed fire and mechanical means and aggressively removing white and grand fir seed sources.
A 20-year time frame for implementation of the management project was recommended.
The letter also mentioned the high quality of fish habitat in the area, “along with other ESA (Endangered Species Act)-listed and rare and endemic species” that evolved with the “dynamics of natural fire, but is now threatened by the highly altered fire regime.”
It also mentioned the economic and recreation values to the area, as it’s important for accessing food sources for people and wildlife and is popular for camping and off-road vehicle adventures. The proximity to communities in the Wallowa Valley makes it an important area for firewood gathering, a necessary source of heat for many here.
“Finally,” the letter stated, “we want to see the project designed in such a way that our local contractors and mill can have some benefit from the harvested logs, providing jobs, purchases at local retail stores and the benefit of those dollars circulating throughout the community.”
The letter also noted the availability of the county’s timber resources.
“The 2016 Wallowa County Forest Management Plan identifies 209,950 acres on the Wallowa Valley and Eagle Cap Ranger Districts and 39,000 acres on the Hells Canyon Natural Recreation Area as available, capable and suitable for timber production,” it stated. “From these acres, timber harvests should occur on 12,448 acres with an estimated 40 million board feet being removed annually.”
The commissioners urged the Forest Service to begin work on the project at once.
“Every decision to delay treatment for some future project is a decision that increases the risk that these special habitats will be consumed by high-intensity wildfire,” the letter stated.