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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blue Mountains forest plans rejected, called ‘difficult to understand’

A part of the Idaho Blue Mountains as seen in August 2018. In a stunning rebuke, the Washington, D.C., office of the U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn the recently completed plans for management of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – In a stunning rebuke, the Washington, D.C., office of the U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn recently completed plans for management of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

The move restarts the 15-year-old process to revise the plans designed to guide the management of each of the forests that together cover more than 5 million acres of federal land across the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

More than 300 organizations and individuals, representing a wide spectrum of outlooks on the best way to manage federal forests, filed specific objections to the plans. Issued last summer, the plans promised to support more than 2,800 jobs and provide income of $133 million annually, while doubling timber harvest and opening vacant grazing allotments.

Objectors included representatives of the timber and livestock industries, motorized recreation groups, county commissioners, environmental organizations, state wildlife management agencies and the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes.

Christopher B. French, acting Forest Service deputy chief in Washington, D.C., wrote in a letter to regional forester Glenn Casamassa at Portland that the plans do not violate any “law, regulation or policy” but said they are complex, confusing and likely to lead to future fights over forest management. French’s comments were vague, but he went out of his way to say the plans failed to meet the needs of local communities.

“For example, a number of plan content modifications occurred that were often complex and not well understood, and there were a number of changes in elected officials, organizations, other stakeholders and key Forest Service staff,” he wrote. “The revised plans also did not fully account for the unique social and economic needs of the affected communities. The resulting plans are difficult to understand, and I am concerned that there will be ongoing confusion and disagreement as to how each revised plan is to be implemented.”

Lawson Fite, legal counsel for the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, said even though the plans called for increasing timber harvest and forest restoration, the details of how that would happen lacked specifics. Fite called the withdrawal a positive step.

“I think it’s a great chance to take a step back and make sure the forest plans work for everybody,” he said. “I think there are solutions out there that can restore the forest where it needs to be, as well as support the rural communities in the region. We are looking forward to working with the Forest Service moving forward through the process.”

Karen Coulter, of the environmental group Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project in Portland, said the plans lacked any enforceable standards and the agency provided scant details when it offered them up for public comment. Coulter said they failed to adequately address climate change, lacked the latest scientific information and eliminated what she sees as important safeguards such as a ban on harvesting large diameter trees and protecting streams from the negative effects of logging and grazing.

“It would be a big backsliding on ecological protections in general,” she said. “I think there is no way they could move forward. They were going to be litigated from all sides. It’s pretty pathetic, from my point of view. They spent 15 years to come up with such a messy, unsustainable, nonecological plan that doesn’t have the enforceable standards and other provisions it would take to be upheld in court.”

Eric Watrud, supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest in Pendleton, Oregon, said Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., and at regional headquarters in Portland want to step back and produce a document that is easily understood and can be implemented while supporting both local communities and the environment.

Watrud said the agency will take the next several months to chart a path forward, and there isn’t yet a time line to fix the deficiencies identified by French.

“The purpose in the end is to have durable plans that can be implemented over the course of the next decade or more in a way that is successful and meets the needs of the landscape and the local communities as well,” he said. “That is the point, to have something that benefits the landscape and the local stakeholders.”