PORTLAND — After 15 years of preparation, the U.S. Forest Service was on the cusp of updating management plans for three national forests covering 5.5 million acres in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington.
Instead, the agency is again taking a step back as it tries to resolve deep-rooted concerns of residents, industry and environmental groups.
Northwest Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa announced the Forest Service is scrapping the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, which includes the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests. A final draft of the plans was released in June 2018.
The three forest plans — which together total more than 5,000 pages — contain guidelines for everything from grazing and timber harvest to wilderness protections. While the plans do not authorize specific projects, they do set goals and desired conditions for the forests, and are ripe for scrutiny.
Forest plans are due to be revised every 10 to 15 years to account for changes in the landscape and to keep up with the latest science.
Casamassa, who joined the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region in August, said he was invited by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., to meet with the Eastern Oregon Counties Association in October, where county commissioners said the plans fell short of meeting economic, cultural and social needs.
More than 300 people also spoke against the plans during objection resolution meetings held across Eastern Oregon in November and December. Objections mostly centered on road closures, forest access and restoring landscapes to improve wildfire resilience, while also providing economic benefit to communities, Casamassa said.
Environmental groups, too, worried about the increasing fragmentation of forest habitat for vulnerable wildlife species, such as wolves, birds and endangered fish.
“These lands are important. They mean a lot to a lot of different people,” Casamassa said. “We need to get it right. If it means taking (more) time to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
This is not the first time the Forest Service has hit the reset button on the planning process.
A draft version of the plans was completed in 2014, and received so much backlash the local forest supervisors decided to develop new plan alternatives.
The result was a new alternative favored by the Forest Service that officials said would have provided for thinning up to 33 percent of dry upland forests, and more than doubled the current timber harvest from 101 million board-feet per year to 205 million board-feet.
The proposal also identified 242,800 animal unit months, or AUMs, of livestock grazing. An AUM is the amount of forage one cow and her calf, one horse or five sheep or goats eat during a month.
In total, the feds claim the plans would created up to 1,173 new jobs in forest products, ranching and recreation, with $59.5 million in added income.
The decision to withdraw the revised plans came from Chris French, the reviewing officer and acting deputy Forest Service chief. While the review did not identify any specific violations of law, regulation or policy, French said the plans were difficult to understand and “do not fully account for the unique social and economic needs of local communities in the area.”
“Many factors compounded to produce revised plans that would be difficult to implement,” French said.
The current Blue Mountains forest plans, which were last updated in 1990, will remain in effect for the time being. Casamassa said the Forest Service will be reaching out again to stakeholders to determine the next steps toward the long-overdue revisions.
Despite the setback, Casamassa insisted the last 15 years of work have not been wasted, and the lessons they learned will play a role in helping the agency to come up with Forest Plans that are implementable, and written in plain English.
“To be quite honest, we can’t obviously do this on our own,” he said. “We need everyone working together.
Walden thanked the Trump administration for restarting the process and listening to local input.
“While it is unfortunate to have to begin again, I’m hopeful we can move forward in a manner that ensures the needs of our local communities are finally being heard and reflected in the plan,” Walden said. “Getting this plan right is important to improving the health of our forests and our communities, reducing the threat of wildfires and maintaining access to our public lands that is part of our way of life in rural Oregon.”