New timeline for revised Blue Mountains Forest Plan

The Strawberry Mountains from Keeney Fork Road on the Malheur National Forest in Grant County. A final environmental impact statement may be ready by the end of June for the Blue Mountains Forest Plan revision.

It may be 12 years overdue, but the U.S. Forest Service is inching closer to revising the outdated Blue Mountains Forest Plan.

A final environmental impact statement, or EIS, may be ready by the end of June, according to Victoria Anne, revision team leader. The final EIS was expected before the end of 2016, though staff turnover has further delayed what has already been a lengthy process.

In addition, the Forest Service has crafted two new plan alternatives based on a year’s worth of feedback from local communities and stakeholders. When completed, the Blue Mountains Forest Plan will form the backbone for land management on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

But there is still plenty of work left to do, even after the agency’s environmental analysis is finished.

Tom Montoya, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest supervisor, said there will be a 90-day objection period after the final EIS is issued, and it could take six months or more to work through objections.

Certainly, the plan has proven a lightning rod for controversy since a draft environmental analysis was released in 2014. While not a decision-making document in and of itself, it does set desired conditions for everything in the woods from fire protection and logging to wilderness and road access.

The proposal drew so much fire that the Forest Service decided to take a step back in 2015 and re-engage through a series of public meetings. Through that process, Montoya said officials heard from locals who wanted to see them pick up the pace and scale of restoration to make the forests more healthy, while also protecting old growth trees.

That’s what the two new alternatives will seek to address in different ways, Montoya said.

“We continue to have that dialogue,” he said.

The Forest Service was on track to have the final EIS out last fall, but the timeline has since been stretched out to later this year. Part of the delay, Montoya said, was the departure of former team leader Sabrina Stadler, who left in August.

Stadler died on Sept. 7, 2016, due to complications with pancreatitis. Michael Hampton, a retired Forest Service employee, filled the role of team leader on an interim basis until Anne arrived on the job in mid-December.

The team also recently brought on a new fisheries biologist to lead consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on complying with the federal Endangered Species Act — primarily for Snake River salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

“We’ve been trying our best to temporarily fill some of those gaps,” Montoya said.

Though the Blue Mountains Forest Plan is being studied under one umbrella, each of the three forests will have its own individual plan. The final decision will come down to Regional Forester Jim Peña in the Forest Service’s Portland headquarters.

Montoya said the two new alternatives could more than double the pace of restoration being done on the forests. The question is how and where that restoration will be addressed.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re being responsive as much as possible, meeting with folks who want to help us with this,” Montoya said.

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