Despite the global pandemic, the Blues Intergovernmental Council, a collective of state, tribal, federal and county representatives formed to resolve long-standing conflicts over the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Malheur national forests, have been meeting over the last year.
BIC, formed in 2019 after the Forest Service scrapped its Blue Mountains Forest Plan revision in March, has been meeting monthly in subcommittee meetings that deal with four different forest management areas, including wildfire management, access, socioeconomic assessment and grazing, according to Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester Lisa Northrop.
“Our first step as a subcommittee is to define and agree on our desired conditions,” Northrop said. “These are complex issues, but we are committed to working together to meet our goals.”
Northrop said BIC had just determined the focus of the subcommittees before the pandemic hit.
For the socioeconomic assessment subcommittee, Wallowa Resources Executive Director Nils Christofferson said BIC asked the Rural Engagement and Vitality Center, a joint venture between Eastern Oregon University and Wallowa Resources, to help implement a new tool to for socioeconomic assessment.
“A useful approach to socioeconomic analysis leads to more informed decision making and helps find opportunities for alignment between the leadership of the National Forest System lands and the counties,” he said.
Christofferson said he hopes the long-term goal with BIC charts a course for an effective Forest Service planning process.
He said the Blue Mountains forests are operating on a very outdated forest plan from 1990.
“It’s important that we have (a forest plan) that speaks to the current conditions and current science and allows us to respond to the needs today that are different from the 1990s when the plan was approved,” Christofferson said.
Grant County Commissioner Jim Hamsher, who is on the socioeconomic subcommittee, said the meetings were going well until the coronavirus outbreak.
Hamsher said it has taken over a year to get the different stakeholders to the table to define the issues.
“Even though we’ve been working on this now for about a year and a half, it’s kind of right now just in its infancy, and we’re really starting to get stuff done,” he said.
Hamsher said he would like to see the health of the forest improved, the economy stabilized and the mill adequately supplied with wood.
“All this stuff affects our communities, like the closure of the mills, or, you know, how many jobs were lost, how much our economy here is reliant on natural resources, not just with the timber but also with grazing,” Hamsher said.
Harney County Commissioner Kristin Shelman, who is on the grazing subcommittee, said the subcommittees tie into one another in various ways.
Grazing, she said, is one area that relates to socioeconomics, especially if the forest plan does not consider grazing and seeks to limit it.
Shelman said Malheur National Forest Supervisor Craig Trulock so far has been thorough about the”sticking points” of the plan as it relates to grazing.
Trulock said the BIC spent a lot of time on developing “operating principles,” and they are doing a “deep dive” into the “significant issues” that caused the last forest plan to be abandoned.
“We’re trying to understand those issues and come up with potential solutions with all of the key players from the governmental side in the room,” he said. “I think there is going to be a level of transparency we haven’t seen before.”