July 28, 1997 in Nation/World

Columbia Basin Project: Disconnection Between Reality, Action

Tim Coleman Special To Roundtable
 

For the past three years, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have spent $35 million developing a long-term plan to manage national forests and grasslands in the Columbia River basin.

Encompassing one-fourth of all national forest lands in the United States, the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project will reshape the way your federal public lands are managed for decades to come. In its current form, the project plan will not fix the environmental problems it claims to address, but rather it proposes to continue management that brought ecosystems in the basin to their current state of decline.

In late May, the project released a draft environmental impact statement, selecting alternative No. 4. What’s most striking about this preferred alternative is its proposed land management objectives (or lack thereof) which propose to double logging over current levels, maintain existing amounts of cattle grazing and do little about correcting the source of environmental problems that exist on the public forests and grasslands today.

A panel of scientists, the Science Integration Team, produced a document for the project. A separate panel of federal agency resource specialists authored the draft environmental impact statement, purportedly based on the science panel’s findings. However, this is where the real story begins. The draft environmental impact statement recommendations are disconnected from the findings of the Science Integration Team.

The science team found that large-diameter trees (old growth) have declined in the basin to levels well below what previously had been estimated. This startling fact does not, however, result in a new protective standard. Rather, there is an absence of standards that protect old-growth trees - a step back from current protections under which no trees larger than 21 inches may be cut unless their distribution exceeds historic levels for a watershed.

Project scientists note that the watershed with the highest ecological integrity also contains the fewest roads.

Similarly, scientists found that roadless and/or wilderness regions are critically important to sustaining native fish and water resources. The science evaluation found that roadless wilderness constitutes 47 percent of the existence value held by society for public lands in the basin; recreation provides 41 percent; logging, 11 percent.

But the draft environmental impact statement turns a blind eye to these findings by allowing roads to be constructed and logging to occur in pristine areas as long as management proceeds “more cautiously.”

Under the proposed action, roads do not even have to be counted as long as they are closed by gate or earthen barrier. This means that once a “cautiously” built road is gated, another can be built nearby to replace it. And this also means that wilderness values will cease to exist. Roads, whether open or gated, are accessible to off-road vehicles and still have an impact on wildlife, water quality and fisheries. They must, therefore, be counted.

The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project looked at only four types of employment in its analysis: timber, ranching, recreation and restoration. Draft environmental impact statement calculations estimate that 108,000 jobs on the East Side are associated with recreation on federal public lands, compared with 3,105 in logging and milling.

The Science Integration Team found that 80 percent of eastern Oregon and Washington rangelands have “low ecological integrity.” In addition, it acknowledges that grazing has had - and will continue to have - negative environmental impacts on aquatic ecosystems. But the draft environmental impact statement ignores these revelations, making no changes in current grazing standards or livestock numbers.

Clearly, there is a noticeable disconnect between the science findings and the draft environmental impact statement. Shortcomings in the science findings, including such huge discrepancies as a determination of wildlife viability; lack of standards to protect soils, reduce cattle damage and stop the spread of noxious weeds further diminishes the credibility of the draft environmental impact statement alternatives.

In general, the project’s findings confirm what conservationists have warned for years: The ecosystem is damaged, and management must change if these trends are to be reversed.

The disconnect between the science findings and the preferred management direction will result in further environmental degradation. At the root of this disconnect is the overt implication that Earth’s ecosystems cannot maintain themselves without the intervention of chain saw and bulldozer.

The project’s final environmental impact statement will not be released until sometime in 1998. Changes must be made to correct inherent deficiencies in the draft environmental impact statement. This can be done only through the issuance of a supplementary environmental impact statement, with public comment, before a credible, scientifically based final environmental impact statement and decision document are released.

To express concerns about the management of our national forests and grasslands before the Oct. 6 deadline, write to: ICBEMP, 112 E. Poplar, Walla Walla 99362, or send e-mail to ICBEMP@bmi.net

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