JOHN DAY – The Eastern Oregon Counties Association last week rebuffed the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The group, meeting at the Grant County Regional Airport last Friday in John Day, voted unanimously to reject the proposal and tell the Forest Service it needs further work.
Members said they can’t accept any of the alternatives proposed by the Forest Service, and they also criticized the underlying assumptions for those alternatives, saying the result is inadequate to address economic, social and environmental goals.
County officials voiced particular concern that the proposal doesn’t address the needs of forest communities, and several said it would be a step backward from the recent gains made through collaboration.
With today’s vote, the association joins several other groups opposing the plan revision, 10 years in the making. Also lining up with concerns and seeking a fresh start on the planning are the Grant County Public Forest Commission and the Blue Mountains Forest Partners collaborative.
The Forest Service has set a deadline of Aug. 15 for public comments on the plan, which will provide the framework for management of three national forests – the Malheur, Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla. Combined, the forests touch on 10 counties.
The association meeting in John Day drew about two dozen county commissioners and leaders from a broad swath of Eastern Oregon, from Wallowa County south to Harney County and west to Morrow County.
The decision to oppose the revision came as the group took up the latest draft of written comments prepared by their consultant, Roger Lord of Mason Bruce & Girard Inc.
Lord, a forest economist, told the group his goal was to craft “a dispassionate and fact-based argument” that would demonstrate the inadequacies of the proposed revision.
The draft raised concerns about the science used to support the revision, the process, and the impact on forest communities.
Noting the extent of the concerns, Lord said, “Maybe the end result is just to get a seat at the table in the objection phase.”
The group was not happy with Alternative E, the Forest Service’s preferred alternative, leaning instead toward Alternative D if significant changes could be made regarding timber harvest levels and other management issues.
However, on Friday, they clearly were dissatisfied with the lot.
Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett told the group his county had already decided to reject the plan and ask the Forest Service to “start over.”
Officials from several counties noted they are hearing increasing criticism of the plan’s treatment of grazing and road access issues.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said he also worries about the way the proposal sets up vastly different outcomes for the counties, some benefiting and others losing out.
“It’s a home run to have these mills working here … But Harney County is left out. There’s nothing in it for us,” he said. “I’m worried about that.”
Lord agreed, noting that three counties in the region have lost all of their industry infrastructure.
“That needs to be rebuilt,” he said.
Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson said he’s concerned that the proposal takes a restoration approach to all issues, and fails to recognize the industrial and commercial uses that benefit the communities.
Officials questioned whether the Forest Service could solve the problems with a new alternative, cobbled together from the existing ones. But King Williams, a member of the Grant County Public Forest Commission, cautioned that a new alternative would still fall within a flawed framework.
The problems, he said, go beyond the alternatives, to “the basis for the alternatives, the underlying assumptions.”
Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward also said a merged alternative wouldn’t be acceptable.
“There are some root problems with this thing,” he said.
While opposing the current alternatives, county officials said they want to retain standing in any further deliberations toward a new forest plan.
While the counties have been “cooperating agencies” in the planning effort, Union County Commissioner Chair Steve McClure said he has maintained all along that if they were not satisfied with the proposal, they would make that clear in their comments.
Officials from the individual counties also plan to adopt resolutions reflecting their decision.
Grasty and Grant County Judge Scott Myers volunteered to have their county counsel, Ronald Yockim, help draft wording for a resolution that could serve as a template for all the counties.