By Katy Nesbitt
for Wallowa Valley Online
ENTERPRISE, Ore – A management plan designed to guide decisions on three eastern Oregon forests was withdrawn yesterday amid enormous protest from the public.
The decision was announced in a conference call between Chris French, acting deputy chief of the Forest Service for national forest systems, and county commissioners representing communities affected by the Blue Mt. Forest Plan Revision, an environmental impact statement begun in 2004. According to Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash considerable pushback from forest users convinced the agency’s leaders to agree to scrap the plan.
Nash said, “ The objection team heard loud and clear the disconnect between the Forest Service and our communities. They said they want to make some positive changes in building trust with the agency and the communities.”
Mark Owens, Harney county commissioner, has been at the forefront of forest issues for his county and the Eastern Oregon County Association at home and in Washington, D.C. as recently as the first week of March. He said the Eastern Oregon County Association members didn’t believe there was an alternative they could support.
“The proposed plan was not workable,” Owens said, “but the fact they are willing to get rid of the plan shows they understand our issues and are listening.”
Forest access, particularly vehicle access, was the biggest issue followed by disagreements in timber harvest levels and livestock grazing restrictions.
For now, Susan Roberts, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, said the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests will be managed with a previous planning rule, with a few minor changes, overseen by Glen Casamassa, the Pacific Northwest Regional forester.
“The visitors of these forests are to be commended for the objections they wrote, their ability to attend meetings and succinctly articulate their feelings,” Roberts said.
Mike Hayward, former Wallowa County Commissioner who worked alongside the Forest Service on many planning issues including the Blue Mt. Forest Plan, said he believes the agency’s planning process is “broken” and isn’t focused on the issues the public is.
“I think the emphasis on the planning process is on science, or they want it to be on science, and yet what drives the local communities as well as the environmental groups is less about science and more about social and economic factors,” Hayward said.
Hayward said he would like to see the Forest Service start with social and economic impacts of forest management and then fit in the science.
Roberts said she believes in the coming months there will some changes in the agency and the citizens living within the Blue Mountains will be able to build better relationships with the agency.
“Withdrawing the plan gives us an opportunity to improve all of our connections with the Forest Service and the citizens,” Roberts said.
An incredible amount of opposition from 350 individuals and organizations around Eastern Oregon first stopped the planning process in 2014. Members of an interdisciplinary team tasked with drafting nearly 6,000 pages of guiding documents for the three forests re-opened public meetings and a comment period after a revised draft was published, but further restrictions on grazing, timber harvest levels that don’t keep pace with forest growth and increasing pressure to close roads culminated in the largest protest against a forest planning process Nash said the leaders in Washington said they had experienced.
French, who has worked closely with county leaders as well as private citizens and special interest groups, said in a letter addressed to Casamassa, that hisreview did not identify any specific violations of law, regulation, or policy, but there were many factors that made the revised plan difficult to implement.
“The resulting plans are very 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,” wrote French.
A press release from Casamassa’s Portland office said existing land and resource management plans, as amended, will remain in place as the Forest Service determines next steps for the Umatilla, Malheur, and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.In the coming months, Forest Service officials will engage stakeholders to explore ways of working together to support a path forward on shared priorities including strengthening local economies, reducing wildfire risk, ensuring access, and supporting healthier watersheds.
“We are committed to the responsible stewardship of National Forest System lands and confident that we can find common ground for the long-term sustainable management of these forests,” said Regional Forester Casamassa. “I look forward to joining local and state officials, partners, Tribes, and members of the public to explore how we can best work together in shared stewardship to pursue common objectives.”