Regional forester, others hope to speed local work

<p>A healthy stand of lodgepole pine on Summit Ridge on the breaks of the Snake River.</p>

An apparent change in U.S. Forest Service philosophy in regard to utilizing timber assets on federal forests in Oregon and Washington sounds positive, yet cannot sidestep inherent thinning and forest restoration roadblocks.

Unavoidable regulations that will slow Oregon and Washington’s USFS regional forester, Kent Connaughton, from quickly implementing his recently announced plan are the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

And yet Bill Aney of the Forest Service office in Pendleton, picked by Connaughton only seven weeks ago to fast-track such changes, is trying to make it happen.

Aney says he’s not concerned if solutions come from the bottom up – a role the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee (NRAC) has been filling locally for more than 17 years – or from the top down, so long as timber harvest problems are addressed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The local harvest rate is slower than the growth rate of nature and that has to change, said Aney, whose official title is “Blue Mountains restoration coordinator.”

Bruce Dunn, who’s been NRAC chairman the past 15 years, hails the Forest Service’s change of direction.

“It’s good that they (USFS) are expressing recognition of the true situation,” he says. “They finally realized it, but it’s been a long time coming.”

Dunn and Aney agree that the change in strategies means solutions are now being sought proactively instead of reactively.

A good example of that, according to Dunn, has been the evolution of large collaboratives, wherein multiple stakeholders help design large watershed assessments that lead to improved forest health. An offshoot of that trend is that far fewer projects are waylaid by appeals because potential appellants are active participants in drawing up such assessments.

Aney, who consistently says he wants to implement innovative changes, says his approach to designing what’s called the Eastside Restoration Strategy – a plan to accelerate thinning and forest restoration projects on the Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur, Umatilla, and Ochoco national forests – can be boiled down to four points:

• Increased utilization of the collaborative process to involve multiple stakeholders at early stages of planning.

• Looking toward larger projects, both in scale and type.

• Dedicated planning, or naming people and groups to plan progressive change.

• Using new science and scientists as integral components of planning.

Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward says it’s positive that suddenly there’s a significant interest in better approaching the problem of forest health on USFS lands.

Still, like everyone else interviewed for this article, Hayward said Connaughton’s plan is not an easy one to achieve. For instance, says the chairman of the Wallowa County board of commissioners, it’s definitely not a one-cure-fits-all situation.

Hayward says the Malheur, and possibly Ochoco National Forest as well, are considered to be “dry forests,” the Umatilla National Forest a “wet forest,” and the Wallowa-Whitman a mix between the two. The general plan of harvesting a “dry forest” draws little dissent and several projects on the Malheur National Forest in the vicinity of 30,000 to 40,000 acres in size are underway today.

Dunn suggests the approach to best manage mixed forests like on the Wallowa-Whitman is far more subjective, and strategies on “wet” forests like the Umatilla more disparate still.

Aney says one of his goals is to generate bigger projects for the Eastside Restoration Strategy, projects comparable in size to one 190,000-acre NRAC project that’s 40 percent completed and a second 176,000-acre NRAC project that within the next month or two will be forwarded for Forest Service approval. Called the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment and Lower Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment, respectively, those assessments were made by a large number of organized volunteers who pooled their talents to form a collaborative on the Wallowa County level.

Like the Upper Joseph Creek assessment, the Lower assessment has been constructed in hopes of avoiding grounds for appeals. Dunn says the Upper Joseph Creek assessment includes proposals including:

? Timber sales.

? Prescribed burns.

? Road maintenance.

? Removal of fish passage barriers.

A timber policy analyst for Boise Cascade LLC, Lindsay Warness, based in La Grande, suggests an advantage to the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment project is that, in general, it includes a warm-dry type of forest.

One problem Connaughton, Aney, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor John Lawrence (who readily admits the Connaughton thinning and forest restoration plan is in its infancy stages) face that’s not challenging at the NRAC level concerns private property.

“We don’t plan activities on private land,” says Aney, while about 50 percent of both large Joseph Creek projects are on private land and 50 percent on USFS land.

Mike Mahon, who’s owned a small logging operation based in Wallowa called Bear Creek Logging Inc. for the past 30 years, says Connaughton’s plan could have a “huge impact” on his business. In the past couple years, estimates Mahon, 90 percent of all his work has been on private land within Wallowa County. The availability of more work on USFS land locally could well provide a bonus to his operation.

The hope is that a many-membered collaborative launched in November 2012 for W-WNF projects through the efforts of county commissions from Wallowa, Union, and Baker counties could reduce the time to begin work on the Lower Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment by as much as two years.

Dunn says on-the-ground work on that 176,000-acre project would not begin until 2016 at the standard NEPA pace, yet could begin earlier if Aney and the new Wallowa-Whitman collaborative have their way.

Among other work, Lower Joseph Creek could result in anywhere from six to 10 timber sales, Dunn says.

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