CANYON CITY – Does the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision need a do-over?
The Grant County Public Forest Commission is still finalizing its response to the proposal, but members told the Grant County Court last week they believe the Forest Service document has too many flaws to address with simple fixes.
“We think the plan as presented is not reparable,” said Larry Blasing, a member of the forest panel.
He said the group is not alone in its criticism of the Forest Service document. He said groups from various interests – backcountry, conservation, roadless areas, timber – share similar concerns about the proposal, although for different reasons.
The public has a deadline of Aug. 15 to submit comments on the proposed plan revision and draft environmental impact statement, a package that runs to 1,400 pages. The plan proposes a framework for long-term management of three forests – the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman – and a portion of the Ochoco that is administered by the Malheur.
Released to the public last March, the proposal has been in the works for more than a decade. Although forest plans are supposed to be revised every 10-15 years, the old plan hasn’t been revised since 1990.
Forest Commission member Brooks Smith said the group disagrees with many assumptions in the plan revision and members are particularly concerned about its reliance on “old science.”
Blasing agreed, saying research discussed throughout the plan dates back 20 years, and some of it is now widely disputed.
County Commissioner Chris Labhart noted that the Forest Service has stressed commenters should offer specific information, rather than just saying “Let’s throw it out.”
“We need to offer some alternatives,” he said. “I think that’s important to do.”
Blasing acknowledged that, saying the group is working on a more specific response. But he also said detailed alternatives to address all the problems in the proposal would require a document as large as the one produced by the Forest Service. It needs a total overhaul, he said.
Forest Commission members said a big concern is that the plan doesn’t address the human factor – community stability.
“That’s one of the real tragedies of this document,” said Blasing.
He and others also said the agency has erred in lumping all the Blue Mountains forests into one plan, when it would be better to tailor a more individual approach.
County Judge Scott Myers said he hopes to rely on the Forest Commission’s expertise and analysis of the plan revision in formulating a response to the Forest Service, but panel members urged the Court to take its own stand.
County officials will meet with their counterparts from other Eastern Oregon counties this Friday in a work session on the counties’ plan response. The meeting will be at the airport in John Day.
In last week’s Court session, Commissioner Boyd Britton told Steve Beverlin, deputy forest supervisor for the Malheur National Forest, “I feel for you, Steve,” noting the array of groups unhappy with the proposed revision.
“Folks on all sides seem to feel it’s not what it should be,” Britton said. “It’s a tough position you folks are in.”
Asked if he’s heard anyone suggest the plan is the best thing they’ve ever seen, Beverlin conceded, “We don’t get comments like that very often.”
However, he said he appreciates the effort of those who are working on comments.
“That’s what we want – a thorough review,” Beverlin said.
Blasing said the community would be better off with the old forest plan, dating back 20 years, with some updates to reflect management changes that the various stakeholders have reached agreement on. Instead, he said, the proposal takes a step back from the progress already made through collaboration on the Malheur Forest.
For example, he noted the plan proposes a lower timber harvest target than is currently in the works as part of the regional office’s push for accelerated restoration.
“So this plan is going backwards,” he said.
The Blue Mountains Forest Partners, the model collaborative group working on the Malheur National Forest, also has concerns.
Vernita Ediger, executive director, said the collaborative also is drafting comments on the plan, and in general, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction.
She said the proposal doesn’t recognize the important role collaboration has played on the Malheur – and should continue to play.
While the group isn’t calling for the Forest Service to toss out the plan, she said members do anticipate the agency “may have an opportunity to revise the plan in the future.”
“Should that happen, we’re letting them know that we would be glad to help with that process,” she said.
Meanwhile, the citizen group Forest Access for All has been pushing Forest Service officials to hold more meetings to take oral comments from the public on the proposal.
The group, which formed around road access issues, held meetings over the past month in communities throughout the region including John Day. The sessions were intended to alert residents to issues in the plan and help them craft effective comments.
Organizer John George also contends the public was promised more meetings on the revision, but forest officials have refused to hold them. He said the first meetings were held too soon after release of the plan, giving the public little time to digest the contents and formulate their remarks.
In a letter to the agency’s leadership, he acknowledged that public comment meetings can be “contentious, passionate and at times confrontational, but in all honesty, in looking at the (revision) it’s obvious that someone needs to hear again what the public has to say about access, as the message is not getting through to the writers of this document.”
George also said the comment period should be extended, but so far Forest Service officials are sticking with the Aug. 15 deadline.
That date is an extension of the original deadline, which had been set for mid-June.
To look at the plan documents and learn more about submitting a comment, visit the Malheur National Forest website and click on the link to the plan.