County commissioners from across Eastern Oregon met Monday with the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies in Pendleton to discuss the latest timeline, progress and key issues facing the long-overdue Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The gathering was another step in the grueling and contentious process of approving three new land management plans for the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests, which were last updated in 1990.
Forest plans are supposed to be updated every 10-15 years to account for the latest science, and provide the Forest Service with a framework for managing public lands. The Blue Mountains Forest Plan includes 4.9 million acres in Eastern Oregon and Washington.
Jim Peña, regional forester for Oregon and Washington, said the Forest Service is in the home stretch of completing the revision, and a final environmental impact statement will be released sometime after February 2018. But county officials remain concerned about how the plans will address issues vital to the local economy, such as livestock grazing, public access, pace and scale of restoration, land allocations and timber sales.
Those concerns were laid out to the feds Monday at the Umatilla National Forest headquarters. More than 30 people attended the meeting, including Peña, Republican congressman Greg Walden, 12 county commissioners, all three forest supervisors and representatives of the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Much of the conversation focused on proposed grazing standards in the plan revision that commissioners warned could deal a major blow to the ranching industry. Specifically, counties railed against an increase in stubble height on public lands from 4 inches to 6 inches in functioning watersheds, and from 6 inches to 8 inches in at-risk or impaired watersheds.
Stubble height is a requirement that relates to water quality, though Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said some grazing allotments within the forests do not grow 8 inches of grass, even in a good year.
“That will almost certainly destroy a few of our smaller producers, and greatly diminish our larger ones if they cannot use our public lands for grazing as they have done in the past,” Roberts said.
The Forest Service would also need to re-evaluate stream conditions on grazing allotments within five years, or three years if the waters are home to threatened or endangered fish. Roberts said that is not a realistic goal, given the agency’s staffing levels.
Tom Montoya, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest supervisor, said the forests are considering a longer-term implementation of the guidelines, and emphasized that livestock grazing continues to be a priority on the landscape.
“(It’s about) making sure we still have a viable industry out there that is doing things continually as they have in the past, in a really responsible way,” Montoya said.
Apart from grazing standards, the Eastern Oregon Counties Association is pushing to increase the pace and scale of restoration projects to improve forest health and fire resiliency. Arbitrary rules — such as regulations for cutting 21-inch-diameter trees to protect old growth forests — have “no basis in science,” they argue.
The counties also do not support any new wilderness or wild and scenic river designations, and aim to maintain a road network of at least 2.5 miles of road per square mile of land, which is the current standard in the forests. Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens said they need to make sure local residents “aren’t kept from viable economic stability, whether it’s ranching or logging.”
“We all realize we can’t have it one way. But we’re asking for some compromise,” Givens said. “Let’s be reasonable here, because there is room for economic stability in these communities involved.”
Givens said he was pleased that Monday’s meeting included the National Marine Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so they could discuss the science driving the Forest Plan revision. Both agencies are responsible for providing a biological assessment of the plan to protect endangered fish and wildlife.
Peña, who will ultimately sign off on the revised plans, said it was an opportunity to ask questions and remove some of the mystique of the inter-agency consultation.
“I think there is the perception they’re not out in the field,” Peña said. “And I think they were kind of able to dispel that belief.”
After releasing a highly controversial draft environmental impact study for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision in 2014, the Forest Service decided to step back and re-engage with stakeholders and the public to garner additional input. That input, Peña said, has led to two new plan alternatives which are now under consideration by the Forest Service.
“We’re trying to get this right,” he said. “I want this to be an improvement over what we’ve been managing under for the last 20 years. I think we’re getting there.”
Even after the final environmental impact statement is released, there is still work left to do. From there, the plans are subject to a 60-day objection period, and a 90-day resolution period to respond to objections. At the earliest, Peña said the revised plans may be signed and in place by August 2018.
Walden, who serves as Oregon’s lone Republican member of Congress and has vouched for forestry reform in the House of Representatives, said he feels the Forest Plan revision is gaining some positive momentum after confronting some deeply held concerns.
“We’d all like to get this plan done. It’s a 10-year plan that’s taken 14 years to write,” Walden said. “We have to live with it for the next decade once it gets into place. It’s essential we get it right.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.