After 15 years of planning, studies and negotiating with Eastern Oregon communities, the U.S. Forest Service is scrapping three revised land management plans for the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.
Collectively known as the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, the documents contain guidelines for everything from grazing and timber harvest to wilderness protections. While the plans did not authorize any specific projects, they did set goals and desired conditions for the forests — making them a lightning rod for controversy among industry and environmentalists.
Chris French, acting deputy chief of the Forest Service, has instructed Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa to withdraw the revised forest plans, which were released in June 2018 along with a joint Environmental Impact Statement. The current forest plans, which were last updated in 1990, will remain in effect for now.
“Many factors compounded to produce revised plans that would be difficult to implement,” French told Casamassa in a statement. “While my review did not identify any specific violations of law, regulation or policy, significant changes occurred over the 15-year time period of the planning process.”
Forest plans are expected to be revised every 10-15 years to account for changes in the landscape and to keep up with the latest science. The Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision has gone through multiple iterations and remains hotly contested in the region.
A draft version of the plans was unveiled in 2014 and received so much backlash the local Forest Service offices decided to re-engage with the public over multiple years to develop new alternatives.
Lumber companies worried the amount of timber harvest allowed under the plans would be insufficient to maintain existing mills; ranchers worried about restrictions on grazing; local cities and counties worried about the buildup of forest fuels driving larger, more destructive wildfires; and residents worried about the closing of more roads, limiting forest access.
Environmental groups, too, worried about the increasing fragmentation of forest habitat for vulnerable wildlife species, such as wolves, birds and endangered fish.
The latest “preferred alternative” for the Blue Mountains Forest Plans called for thinning up to 33 percent of dry upland forests to improve health and resiliency, creating up to 1,173 new jobs in forest products, livestock and recreation, and $59.5 million in added income.
The plans would have also doubled timber harvest across the three forests from a recent average of 101 million board feet to 205 million board feet, and identified 242,800 animal unit months of livestock grazing.
An animal unit month, or AUM, describes the amount of forage one cow and her calf, one horse or five sheep or goats would eat during a month.
Still, the plans received approximately 350 formal objections, and more than 300 people voiced concerns during each of five community meetings in November and December.
French said the plans do not “fully account for the unique social and economic needs of local communities in the area.”
“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,” French said.
In the coming months, the Forest Service will reach out again to partners to figure out next steps for management plans in the three forests. Casamassa, the regional forester based in Portland, said he is confident they can find common ground for long-term sustainable management.
“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,” Casamassa said.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, praised the Trump administration for listening to concerns raised by people in forested communities. Walden said a common refrain from the public at meetings was that the government was not listening.
“Despite repeated efforts to provide input, local elected officials and the people they represent have repeatedly felt ignored by the process and proposals the Forest Service put forward,” he said. “While it is unfortunate to have to begin again, I’m hopeful we can move forward in a manner that ensures the needs of our local communities are finally being heard and reflected in the plan.”