LA GRANDE – Residents of rural Eastern Oregon want to see more done on federally managed forests to restore timber jobs, maintain public access and protect communities from potentially destructive wildfires.
Locals say they also want more direct engagement with the U.S. Forest Service as the agency continues revising its 15-year Blue Mountains National Forests Land Management Plan.
Approximately 175 people attended a panel discussion on forestry issues Monday, Oct. 20, at the Blue Mountain Conference Center in La Grande, hosted by new Regional Forester Jim Peña and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Panelists included representatives from mining, recreation, agricultural and logging industries, as well as county officials. One by one, they expressed their concerns and vented frustrations over a perceived lack of active management on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.
Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson said the Forest Service is allowing timber resources to go to waste by cutting back on logging, allowing the woods to become overgrown while families struggle below the poverty line.
Northeast Oregon has lost 19 mills and 4,700 jobs over the last 30 years.
“We are letting this resource go to waste while the children we should be caring for are going hungry,” Davidson said. “It goes right back to the health of our communities and families.”
The Eastern Oregon Counties Association already voted unanimously to reject the proposed Revised Blue Mountains Forest Plan and each of six alternatives, saying the documents fall short of their social and economic needs.
“We were disappointed in the outcome,” Davidson said. “We feel the preferred alternative fails our communities, and fails the needs ecologically.”
Tom Insko, inland region manager for Boise Cascade, estimated the three forests are growing at a rate of 800 million board feet per year. The company's Eastern Oregon operations mill just 170 million board feet per year, and of that only 10 percent comes from the local national forests.
Four out of Boise Cascade's five Eastern Oregon lumber mills have cut operations down to a single shift, Insko said, due to the amount of raw material they've been able to harvest. If those facilities could each add a second shift, it would add 180 new jobs to the economy.
Those wood products jobs pay about 40 percent more than the average position in Union County, Insko added.
“The adverse impact on our communities is considerable, and solutions are sorely needed,” Insko said.
Larry Cribbs, vice president of the Eastern Oregon ATV Association, talked about the need to maintain open motorized access into public lands, while Jan Alexander with the Eastern Oregon Mining Association discussed the mounting backlog of mining operations still under evaluation by the Forest Service.
“I think, basically, the Forest Service reacts to the environmental groups,” Alexander said.
Peña listened for more than an hour before taking time to respond, saying the Forest Service now has different processes and priorities as it establishes management objectives.
“Thirty years ago, we had different rules and a different level of engagement,” he said. “Now, it’s a national thing and we’re integrating national needs with local needs ... Everybody has their own set of values.”
In terms of timber harvest, Pena said he doubts levels will ever reach what they once were, regardless of need. The forests should have an open and sustainable transportation system, he said, though he recognized there is disagreement over what exactly that should look like.
“We have to balance access with the environmental consequences, and operating roads that are unsafe,” Pena said.
One thing Peña did agree with was the need to continue engaging the public as the Forest Service works toward finalizing its Blue Mountains management plan.
“How do we provide for everybody to have their share of the national forests?” he asked. “I don’t agree that we aren’t providing those opportunities now, but I think we can do it better.”
Walden mentioned on multiple occasions the U.S. House has now twice passed legislation that would increase logging on federal lands, requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to designate land in every national forest suitable for commercial timber harvest — which would be known as “forest reserve revenue areas.”
That bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate.
During question-and-answer with the audience, Hermiston resident Pat Maier mentioned she and others circulated a petition against the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision at the Umatilla County Fair, which garnered 850 signatures in four days.
Maier said she does not want the issue to become “us vs. them,” but if it comes to that, she said the taxpayers will rule.
“Our Forest Service needs to take a more friendly approach about what the people in their communities think,” she said. “It is very important we keep public access to our lands.”