Watershed plan could protect environment, create jobs

This photo near Alder Creek shows a landscape within the 175,000 acre Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment area located northeast of Enterprise. Submitted photo

A novel approach to maintaining the environment of Wallowa County and providing jobs in the process is encompassed in the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment Plan which should come out for public comment next month. It is hoped that the comprehensive management plan to evolve from the assessment will become a template to assess all 16 watersheds in the spacious Northeastern Oregon county.

Some $275,000 has already been spent on the initial assessment and data collection segment of the 175,000 acre project located northeast of Enterprise. How much additional money will be generated in the next few years to actually implement management plans on the ground is not known.

The project is the brainchild of the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee (NRAC) which in the early 1990s was the driving force behind the acclaimed Wallowa County/Nez Perce Tribe Salmon Habitat Recovery Plan. NRAC Chairman Bruce Dunn says the Upper Joseph Creek assessment is applying the principals of the Salmon Plan. Early proponents of the assessment idea were Wallowa Resources and the Forest Service.

What makes the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment different from other projects is: 1) it is dealing with an entire watershed instead of simply one project at a time; and 2) it includes an entire array of partners in the initial phases, instead of the Forest Service initiating a process and later gathering private input.

Dunn says that there are as many as 70 people actively participating in the assessment. Many come from the four subcommittees who are comprising the assessment effort, many from NRAC, a dozen or so from the Forest Service and another 16 from the two private companies under the direction of Larry Nall (timber) and Dennis Sheehy (range) who have been hired to gather data.

Of the 175,000 acres involved in the project 60 percent is under private ownership and 40 percent belongs to the Forest Service. Because the federal government is involved the entire project has to be scrutinized under the National Environment Protection Act (NEPA) which is only good for five years. Dunn says that projects created under the management plan will be closely monitored, making it much easier to gain renewed NEPA authorization after the five years have expired.

Nils Christoffersen of the non profit Wallowa Resources is the overall coordinator for the massive assessment effort. He says that twelve of the over 50 landowners involved in the watershed have agreed to be partners in the effort, including six whose holdings comprise 70 percent of the private land involved. They are large ranches owned by Gertzen, Lewis, McClaran, Tippett, McDaniel and Birkmaier.

The data collection includes such information as fuel loads, tree mortality, range, water, fish, endangered species act (ESA) plants and animals, noxious weeds, riparian areas, roads & recreation, and wildlife.

By December of 2003 the data collection should be gathered and assimilated into useable written form. At that time, said Dunn, the compiled information will be sent out to as many as 10 qualified individuals for a process known as peer review.

Dunn hopes to have generated additional moneys to begin contracting some smaller projects by June, 2003. More projects will follow as long as the five year NEPA window is open.

Christoffersen said that the initial $145,000 to begin the project came from the Forest Service and the Ford Foundation. The next $125,00 was provided by The Nature Conservancy and the Weyerhauser Family Foundation.

Though it is assumed that projects on federal land will be funded by federal moneys, private land funding can come from a myriad of sources. A few of the more obvious ones would be the Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and through the National Fire Protection Act. Dunn also talks about a possible pilot area status designation which, if the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment Plan can qualify, could trigger additional dollars from other self supporting pilot area projects.

"If this one works good and we do all 16 watersheds (in Wallowa County) we will have a continuity of jobs over time," says Dunn. "Imagine that, jobs for people and helping the environment at the same time."

After the data is returned from peer review, final touches will be made and like projects will be put together in one contract package and put out for bids. Examples of possible work will be the thinning of tree stands and work on culverts which now block fish passage.

The assessment idea was conceived by NRAC in November of 2000 and endorsed by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners the following January. During the next nine months an array of partners worked together to determine how to best proceed with the project. By the summer of 2001 the initial funding was in place. Some of the partners in those discussions includes, but is not limited to, Wallowa Forest Products, RY Timber, the Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, The Nature Conservancy, Wallowa Resources, the NRAC, the Wallowa County Planning and Road Departments and a number of individuals.

The updated data collection is crucial to the plan. Dunn said that the last Forest Service data on the targeted lands for timber was gathered in 1985 and for range lands was 1975. In previous years, said Christoffersen, the Forest Service would survey its natural resources and estimate resources on the watershed's private lands ... often on the conservative side.

"There is nothing in this plan that is going to tell a private landowner to do anything," says Christoffersen. "What it will do is identify opportunities for them to participate."

It is thought that the Upper Joseph Creek assessment will forge the way and make future assessments that much easier. "What it can do," adds the project coordinator, "Is elevate the local involvement in the management of public lands. And that excites me," he says with conviction.

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