At long last, the U.S. Forest Service is ready to unveil its final draft of the much-anticipated Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The plans, which were last updated in 1990, will guide land management activities — including timber harvest, livestock grazing and recreation — over 5.5 million acres in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests in Eastern Oregon for the next 10-15 years.
A draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the plans was released in 2014, but after a significant public backlash the Forest Service embarked on three more years of outreach to build consensus.
The result is a final EIS and draft record of decision that will be published June 29, kicking off a 60-day period for individuals or groups with legal standing to file objections. The process then segues into a 90-day objection resolution period, before the Pacific Northwest regional forester, Jim Peña, makes his final decision.
Tom Montoya, supervisor for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Baker City, Ore., said that if all goes according to schedule, the revised forest plans could be adopted and in place by the beginning of 2019 — more than a decade overdue.
“We’ve learned that you can’t rush these processes,” Montoya said. “They take time to allow for adequate input, adequate dialogue and opportunities to for our public to engage.”
The Forest Service published its draft EIS in February 2014, and received more than 1,100 comments in response, most of which were negative in their feedback. That is when the agency decided to regroup and re-engage with partners representing local communities, cattlemen, loggers, public access and the environment.
Meanwhile, the forests continued to change. The massive Canyon Creek wildfire complex torched more than 110,000 acres on the Malheur National Forest south of John Day, Ore., prompting calls for more vigorous and active tree thinning and management.
The revision team itself also experienced turnover. The current team leader, Victoria Anne, took over in December 2016. The Umatilla National Forest also changed supervisors twice, from Kevin Martin to Genevieve Masters, most recently from Masters to Eric Watrud.
Ultimately, the Forest Service developed two new alternatives for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, based on the agency’s original preferred “Alternative E.” One of those, dubbed “Alternative E Modified,” will be the preferred plan in the final EIS.
Montoya said the latest update sought to address concerns about overall forest health, timber harvest, grazing and access.
“It really tries to strike at what we heard from our public,” he said.
The Forest Plan does not make any site-specific decisions — such as closing roads — though it does identify goals and desired conditions for future projects. Goals identified in the latest plan revision include healthier forests that are more resilient to fire and disease, provide clean water and long-term economic value, Montoya said.
Details remain sparse until the documents are officially published Friday, but the Forest Service is already touting a number of potential benefits, including:
• Thinning up to 33 percent of dry upland forests over the life of the plan to improve health and resiliency.
• Up to 1,173 new jobs in forest products, livestock and recreation, and $59.5 million in added income.
• Doubling timber harvest across the three forests, from a recent average of 101 million board feet to 205 million board feet.
• Approximately 242,800 animal unit months, or AUMs, of livestock grazing, consistent with the current output in the Blue Mountains forests. AUMs are defined as the amount of forage animals need to graze for one month.
The plans will also recommend Congress authorize an additional 70,500 acres of new wilderness, or about 1.3 percent of the total area.
In a statement, Peña, the regional forester, said the Blue Mountains Forest Revision honors the many years of input provided by local governments, states, tribes, federal agencies and other groups.
“We have been listening to diverse perspectives,” Peña said. “Together, we are working to make our forests more resilient to change while also supporting rural prosperity.”
The final EIS for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision can be accessed online at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/BlueMountainsPlanRevision. Hard copies are also available at local libraries.