A large-scale project designed to reduce wildfire risk in ponderosa pine stands is being handed over to the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Ochoco national forests to manage in light of recent staffing and policy changes in the U.S. Forest Service.

PENDLETON — A Pendleton-based team of scientists planning large-scale projects across the forests of the Blue Mountains is disbanding this summer.

From its inception, the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Interdisciplinary Team was always designed to dissolve at an undetermined time, the team’s leader David Hatfield said. However, the withdrawal of the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision this spring, and the impending retirement of most of the remaining team members, precipitated sunsetting the project and passing off the data and analysis of the Resiliency Project, a landscape-size forestry planning project for ponderosa pine forest stands on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Ochoco national forests.

Hatfield said a draft environmental impact statement was scheduled to go out for public comment sometime this summer and was aligned with the new rules proposed under the Forest Plan Revision. The Resiliency Project, like the revised forest plan, used best available science from the 2000s and used a novel approach to planning.

“The withdrawal caused us to think about what we wanted to do and what it would take to realign those two alternatives to the 1990 plan,” he said.

Hatfield said forest supervisors decided the most efficient way to continue the team’s work was to have the data and analysis handed over to the forest staff to work with their local county commissioners, stakeholders and community members to develop projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Some of the work the forests will inherit from the team is a detailed fire risk assessment for the three forests and methods for large-scale restoration.

“The Resiliency Project is not different than anything forests have done in the last 16 years,” Hatfield said. “We are basically focusing in on similar themes where forests are out of whack for similar reasons.”

Using a variety of methods — prescribed fire, thinning and timber harvest — Hatfield said dry ponderosa pine forests can be manipulated to decrease the chance of small wildfires turning into large and destructive fires and create a healthier forest.

“We get the forest on its way to being healthy or at least set the trajectory, though it might take 50 years to get to a desired condition,” Hatfield said.

Eric Watrud, Umatilla National Forest supervisor, said the transition will include a local and community-focused approach to project planning.

“I think in the end, even with each forest taking its own localized approach, we are still planning landscape-scale projects across the Blue Mountains,” Watrud said.

Large projects are being planned across the Umatilla like the Sunrise project in Pomeroy, the Glass project on the Walla Walla District and the 114,000-acre Ellis Project straddling the North Fork John Day District based in Ukiah and the Heppner District.

“During the 60-day extended scoping comment period we held three workshops for the public to identify different values,” Watrud said.

“It’s been really good for our employees to have a sense of completion and accomplishment to have those projects completed and we look forward to rolling in the resiliency project as one of the types of work we do on the Umatilla,” Watrud said.

Tom Montoya, supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman, said it’s important to do things at a larger scale one in order to complete environmental analysis more efficiently, but size is only one consideration.

“Bigger isn’t always better, you have to be careful how big you go,” Montoya said. “It’s more about looking at the risk in terms of fire transfer from the national forest to private land.”

As the information across the three forests is disseminated, Montoya said not all projects will be designed on a large scale — small categorical exclusions will be incorporated where appropriate and along with more detailed analyses when necessary.

“The work the team did was a good road map in terms of trying to do planning differently and working across forest boundaries,” Montoya said.

Now that some of the acres under the Resiliency Project are being managed by district and forest supervisor office staff, Montoya said they are planning on rolling out about five to eight million board feet of timber harvest in 2022 and expect to grow harvest up to 25 to 30 million board feet a year in subsequent years.

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