JOHN DAY - The smiles spread as fast as the news this week at the Forest Service headquarters in John Day, as the Southern Blues Restoration Project was awarded $2.5 million for 2012.
The project, aimed at improving large swaths of the the Malheur Forest, is one of two Oregon projects funded as part of a sweeping strategy announced Feb. 2 by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"We're very, very excited," said Teresa Raaf, Malheur National Forest supervisor. At the same time, she said the congratulatory air was marked with the weight of responsibility for the work ahead.
"We know we've got to do this wisely," she said.
She said the funding was great news not only for the forest, but for the communities of Grant and Harney counties. The project, she said, offers "an opportunity to keep jobs moving at a steady pace, instead of the boom and bust that this area has experienced in the past."
Another Oregon project, based in Lakeview, will receive $3.5 million for 2012.
The two projects are among 10 new proposals from across the nation selected for funding through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Ten other forest restoration projects approved in 2010 - including Deschutes Skyline in Oregon - will see their funding continued.
"Through our partnerships with states, communities, tribes and others, we are committed to restoring our forests and bringing jobs to rural America," said Vilsack. "Whether the threat comes from wildfire, bark beetles or a changing climate, it is vital that we step up our efforts to safeguard our country's natural resources."
He released a new report - "Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation on our National Forests" - that expounds on that theme. The report outlines a series of management steps for the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands managed by the Forest Service.
In a press conference, Vilsack noted the importance of the strategy for the health of the forests, but also for the local forest communities and the economy.
"The national forests and grasslands are the backdrop and neighbor to many rural and urban communities, providing a range of values and benefits, including clean drinking water for millions of people across the U.S., vital wildlife habitat, a variety of recreation opportunities, and other multiple uses that support jobs and economic growth in rural communities," he said. "The Forest Service's restoration program of work is designed to sustain the ability of these lands to continue to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come."
Raaf said the forest staff and its partners have been planning for the landscape-scale work on the forest for nearly five years. She lauded the collaborative groups Blue Mountain Forest Partners and Harney County Resource Collaborative for their work.
"They actually wrote this proposal and carried it forward," she said. "This has been a long process, and they have been in step with us the whole way. I can't give them enough credit."
The participants included Sustainable Northwest, the Western Environmental Law Center, Malheur Lumber Company and county government officials and citizens.
Raaf said the forest staff was able to complete a lot of planning and surveys for the restoration work through federal Recovery Act funding awarded to the Malheur in 2010 - work showing that "we are a good investment."
The next step will be for the staff and partners to sit down and determine the starting points for implementing the Southern Blues project, Raaf said.
"There are a lot of decisions to be made, a lot of strategic choices, to invest this money for the long-term benefits of the lands and communities of Grant and Grant Counties," she said.
Raaf said the Southern Blues project could be eligible for the same level of funding for another eight years, as long as Congress continues to authorize the program.
The project identifies 271,980 acres to be treated, with nearly 200,000 of those either in National Environmental Policy Act planning stages or NEPA-ready.
The project includes an array of work to improve tree stands, water quality and wildlife habitat. The resulting restored ecosystem should more resistent to fire, insects and disease, and also create a predictable flow of material to mills and emerging industries, strengthening the local economy.
Mike Billman, timber manager for Malheur Lumber Company and a participant in the Blue Mountains collaborative, said the prospect of more acres treated "also means more product" - both in sawlogs and the smaller biomass material.
He said both could have a huge impact for the local industry, and jobs, if the funding continues on an annual basis.
"From our standpoint, that's pretty exciting," he said.
He lauded the joint effort behind the success.
"Some of the people in the collaborative put in an immense amount of work on this," he said.
Grant County Judge Mark Webb agreed.
"This award - with all it means for the county - simply wouldn't have happened minus the BMFP collaborative effort that involved considerable work and coordination that included loggers, industry folk, conservationists, agency folk and others committed to helping rural counties," he said.
Webb said the award will bolster the ability to treat the federal land in a way that will improve both forest and community health over the long term.
He said the Malheur Forest only has about a third of the budget it needs to treat an estimated 60,000 acres a year - the amount "we must treat if we are to reverse the downtward spiral in forest health on federal lands."
"This award will significantly boost the Malheur's ability to move toward that level of treatment," Webb said.
Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center and a member of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, also welcomed the news. The funding, she said, signals the Forest Service's support for collaborative forest restoration.
"This award shows that we can truly accomplish more together than acting alone. I'm very pleased with the agency's recognition of our hard work," she said.
The news also drew plaudits from Oregon's congressional delegation and other observers.
U.S. Rep. Walden (R-Ore.) noted that both Oregon project areas have "unacceptably high unemployment."
"Any additional work is welcome in our rural communities," he said. "The Lakeview and Southern Blues proposals were the top-rated and among the largest projects in the country. They will help reduce wildfire management costs and create a predictable supply of forest byproducts that will help stabilize local economies and their infrastructure."
Conservation groups also chimed in.
"It's terrific news that Oregon's forest restoration projects will be funded to create jobs in some of Oregon's hardest-hit rural communities," said Russell Hoeflich, Oregon director for The Nature Conservancy. "It's a tribute to the hard work by community leaders and to the great science developed by Oregonians that shows you can produce healthier forests, clean water, and jobs in the woods, all at the same time."