The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to promote rural economies while simultaneously protecting ecosystems and watersheds with its revised forest plans covering more than 5 million acres of federal public land in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.
Forest officials recently released plans that will govern management of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests and are in the midst of a 60-day public comment period. Combined, all three plans have the potential to support more than 2,800 jobs and provide income of $133 million annually, according to a Forest Service news release.
The plans would allow foresters to actively manage the forests and produce as much as 205 million board feet of timber annually – a doubling of current timber output- continue current grazing levels and recommend Congress consider adding an additional 70,500 acres of wilderness.
The plans also aim to support both motorized and nonmotorized recreation.
Forest plans are seen as guiding documents that help forest managers select and implement various programs such as timber management, grazing, recreation and wildlife and aquatic habitat restoration.
Although they are designed to have a lifespan of about 15 years, they often are in play for much longer. All three forests last updated their plans in 1990.
“The previous plans we were working with were based off of the best of 1990 science,” said Eric Watrud, supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest, based in Pendleton, Ore. “Obviously there has been a lot of advances in our understanding of how ecosystems work and our understanding of social and economic needs. The new plan really strives to incorporate that new science and new understanding coupled with really active community engagement.”
Watrud said the agency wants to help both the forests and nearby communities become more resilient.
“The new plan really gives us the flexibility to be able to do active management across the landscape in a way that protects wildlife, in a way that supports local communities and in a way that makes sure we have the infrastructure needed to get that work done while still protecting important environmental qualities and habitat into the future.”
On the Umatilla Forest, which includes the Pomeroy Ranger District, the overall timber target would rise from about 30 million board feet per year to about 56 million board feet. The plan recommends adding about 32,000 acres of wilderness on the forest, most of it is adjacent to existing wilderness, Watrud said.
The plans, known as draft records of decision, and their accompanying environmental impact statements are available for review at bit.ly/2O6EcRI. Comments must be submitted by Aug. 28.
Lawson Fite, general counsel for the American Forest Resource Council based at Portland, said his organization is busy reviewing the documents, though many people in the forest products industry had issues with an earlier draft. In particular, he said, they were concerned the agency didn’t do enough to help forest managers meet timber targets.
“Very little has changed since 2014 and what the proposal is now. We find it frustrating that they would spend four years and basically come back around to the same spot.
Conversely, at least one conservation organization said the plans give forest managers too much leeway to extract timber and run cattle on the three forests.
Karen Coulter of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project said the new timber targets are excessive.
“The forest plan revision would double the already unsustainable logging volume per year,” she said.
She said the size of trees within the forest is shrinking and logging impacts are growing. She criticized the agency for including plans to reopen closed grazing allotments and for not recommending enough areas for possible wilderness designation.
“Wildlife and fish desperately need wilderness and lack of disturbance to have refuge from climate change and human impacts,“ she said. ”Carbon storage in wilderness is terribly significant, given the rate of logging elsewhere, for carbon sequestration and to slow climate change.”
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