ENTERPRISE, Ore. — The decision to scuttle a new management plan covering three sprawling Eastern Oregon national forests came after years of sustained protests from the public.
Restrictions on grazing, timber harvest levels and increasing pressure to close roads spurred citizens to rail against the forest plan, which they said would throttle the region's economy and bar them from accessing the national forests.
The decision to scrap the plan, which would include the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests was announced in a conference call between Chris French, acting deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service for national forest systems, and county commissioners representing communities affected by the Blue Mountain Forest Plan Revision, an effort begun in 2004.
According to Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash, pushback from forest users convinced the agency’s leaders to scrap the plan.
“The objection team heard loud and clear the disconnect between the Forest Service and our communities," Nash said. "They said they want to make some positive changes in building trust with the agency and the communities.”
Mark Owens, a Harney County commissioner, said the Eastern Oregon County Association members didn’t believe there was an alternative they could support.
“The proposed plan was not workable,” Owens said, “but the fact they are willing to get rid of the plan shows they understand our issues and are listening.”
Forest access was the biggest issue, followed by disagreements over timber harvest levels and livestock grazing.
For now, the forests will be managed under a previous plan, with a few minor changes, overseen by Glen Casamassa, the Pacific Northwest regional forester.
“The visitors to these forests are to be commended for the objections they wrote, their ability to attend meetings and succinctly articulate their feelings,” Susan Roberts, Wallowa County Commission chairman, said.
Mike Hayward, a former Wallowa County Commissioner who worked alongside the Forest Service on many planning issues including the Blue Mountain Forest Plan, said he believes the agency’s planning process is “broken” and isn’t focused on the same issues as the public.
“I think the emphasis on the planning process is on science, or they want it to be on science, and yet what drives the local communities as well as the environmental groups is less about science and more about social and economic factors,” Hayward said.
Hayward said he would like to see the Forest Service start with social and economic impacts of forest management and then fit in the science.
Roberts said she believes in the coming months there will be some changes in the agency and the citizens living in the Blue Mountains will be able to build better relationships with the agency.
“Withdrawing the plan gives us an opportunity to improve all of our connections with the Forest Service and the citizens,” Roberts said.
Opposition from 350 individuals and organizations around Eastern Oregon first stopped the planning process in 2014. Agency leaders in Washington said it was the largest protest they had experienced over a forest plan, according to Nash.