The U.S. Forest Service is taking comment from individuals and groups with legal standing to file objections on its final draft of the much-anticipated Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The plans, which were last updated in 1990, will guide land management activities — including timber harvest, livestock grazing and recreation — over 5.5 million acres in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests in Eastern Oregon for the next 10-15 years.
The Forest Service has been working to replace the 1990 management plan since 2003. Four years ago it released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed replacement. Near universal backlash from timber, grazing, recreation and environmental interests prompted three years of “re-engagement” with the public.
The Forest Service says its preferred revision calls for more active management to improve forest health and reduce the risk of the large and dangerous wildfires plaguing the West.
To that end, the plan calls for doubling the annual timber harvest across all three forests from a recent average of 101 million board-feet to 205 million board-feet. It could also add as many as 51,600 animal unit months, or AUMs, associated with vacant allotments for livestock grazing across the three forests.
Stakeholder responses to the revisions have been tepid at best.
Doubling the timber harvest would be a boon to loggers and the economies of communities that once depended on the paychecks from lumber mills.
But timber interests say the proposed revision doesn’t offer any guarantees the Forest Service will be able to meet those targets each year. It’s impossible to maintain mills and other industry infrastructure without that certainty.
Livestock producers would like to be able to graze more cattle and sheep in the forests.
There have been many changes to the management of the forests in the last 28 years that have caused the active number of AUMs to decline from what was provided in the 1990 plan.
The 1990 plan called for 524,000 AUMs for grazing, but only 242,800 are currently available. The revised plan calls for up to 294,400.
Ranchers are skeptical they’ll actually get to graze on those additional AUMs.
Environmental groups, on the other hand, say the plan places too much emphasis on resource extraction, and does not do enough to protect old-growth trees and wildlife.
We think more logging and more grazing is a good idea. The fuel load in the forests needs to be reduced. Rural communities in Eastern Oregon could use the 1,200 extra jobs and additional $60 million in income the plan could generate.
Those with standing have until the end of the month to comment. The Forest Service then has 90 days to make further revisions.
Whatever plan is eventually adopted, the operational details will be as much a product of litigation as careful consideration.
Because in the end, it’s the federal judiciary, not the Forest Service, that writes the working forest management plan.