PENDLETON, Ore. — The U.S. Forest Service spent the last 15 years working to update land management plans for three national forests in Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington.
In the end, it still wasn’t enough to bring competing interests — including loggers, ranchers, nature lovers, ATV riders and environmentalists — together on the same page.
Now the agency is trying a different approach, working directly with state, county and tribal representatives as part of a newly formed intergovernmental council aimed at resolving deep-rooted conflicts over the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.
Collectively known as the Blue Mountains National Forests, the area encompasses 5.5 million acres, roughly the size of New Jersey, stretching from east of Walla Walla, Wash. to south of John Day, Ore.
Each forest has its own individual resource and management plan, which identifies goals and desired conditions for the landscape. While the plans do not make any project-level decisions, they do establish broader guidelines for livestock grazing, timber harvest, wilderness and roads.
Forest plans are supposed to be updated every 15 years to account for the latest science and changing conditions. The Blue Mountains Forest Plan was last updated in 1990.
Coming up with new plans for the forests has proven especially difficult, with intense public scrutiny and backlash. Earlier this year, the Forest Service announced it was withdrawing its latest proposal and would re-engage with communities.
Chris French, the reviewing officer and Forest Service deputy chief, said that while the 5,000-page plans passed legal muster, they were difficult to understand and implement.
”I think that was really noteworthy news for everyone involved,” said Eric Watrud, supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest. “We wanted to make sure we as an agency could move forward with something the communities could support.”
Counties objectThis is not the first time the Forest Service has taken a step back to fix perceived flaws in the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The agency released a draft version of the plans in 2014, which was met with overwhelmingly negative feedback. In response, the forest supervisors began a series of meetings around the region to develop new plan alternatives and seek compromise.
What they came up with — dubbed “Alternative E-Modified” — called for thinning 33% of dry upland forests to improve wildfire resilience, while doubling the current timber harvest and designating 70,500 acres of new wilderness.
Still, it was met with opposition.
The Eastern Oregon Counties Association detailed eight primary issues in its objections, including economics; access; management area designation; pace and scale of restoration; grazing; fire and salvage logging; coordination between agencies; and wildlife and fisheries. Among their criticisms, the counties argued that Alternative E-Modified included provisions that would artificially close roads and limit livestock grazing, while failing to thin enough of the woods to boost timber jobs or lower the risk of large wildfires.
Counties also objected to any new wilderness or wild and scenic river designations, and any new research natural areas. Harney County Commissioner Mark Owens said the plans must take into account the social and economic impact of the forests on the region.
“There is a lot of potential opportunity,” Owens said. “We want to see actual opportunity.”
Rebuilding trustAfter the last forest plan recommendation was scrapped in March, Owens said the Eastern Oregon counties reached out to Northwest Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa to see if they could work more closely with the Forest Service on planning efforts moving forward.
The answer was the formation of the Blues Intergovernmental Council, giving them a seat at the table to relay information and provide input directly to the forest supervisors and other federal agencies.
“I believe this gives us an extra opportunity for public involvement with this intergovernmental panel,” Owens said. “It’s very encouraging for me.”
In addition to 13 Oregon and Washington counties, the Forest Service has invited six state government offices, four American Indian tribes and six federal agencies to participate on the council. A final roster of members has not yet been completed.
The council will meet once a month to discuss the plan revision. The first informal meeting was Nov. 22 in Bend, and the second meeting is scheduled for Dec. 20 in Pendleton.
Craig Trulock, supervisor of the Malheur National Forest, said it will likely take 2-3 more years before an updated forest plan is completed. Until then, the forests will continue to operate under the 1990 plans.
The council will likely continue to discuss contentious forest management issues such as livestock grazing in riparian areas, road management, habitat connectivity for wildlife and the so-called “Eastside Screens” rule that prohibits cutting trees larger than 21 inches in diameter in Eastern Oregon and Washington.
Trulock emphasized the council is meant to enhance — not replace — additional required planning and outreach under the National Environmental Policy Act.
”The way I see it, it would all be working to develop a really transparent and solid proposed action to move forward with the forest plan revision,” Trulock said.
Tom Montoya, supervisor on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said the Forest Service managers felt the council was an opportunity to rebuild some relationships with the public that had been fractured previously during the planning process.
“I think that’s where we are with this whole effort, is making sure we are all on the same page, so to speak, and working on those (plan) components together,” Montoya said.
Owens acknowledged there are no assurances the council will succeed where other efforts have failed. But, he said, with greater transparency, they can begin to rebuild trust in the system.
”Most of our communities understand that. We need to move forward together,” Owens said. “It will all come down to building trust again.”