By TERRI HARBER
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has released detailed plans for Snow Basin, a multi-year endeavor in eastern Baker County that forest officials say would improve forest health and also produce more timber than any project on the forest in the past decade.
The Wallowa-Whitman's goal in Snow Basin, which encompasses about 28,500 acres north of Richland and west of Halfway, is to return to historic conditions with "open, park-like stands dominated by single-storied forests of large ponderosa pines surrounded by small patches of mixed conifers," said Monica Schwalbach, forest supervisor.
To accomplish that goal, forest officials are proposing to cut many of the fir trees that have encroached on areas where in the past pines and tamaracks predominated.
One part of that strategy - cutting mature firs that are larger than 21 inches in diameter, bothers environmental groups.
Snow Basin, which has been in the planning stage for the past four years, also calls for using prescribed fire to reduce ladder fuels and, as a result, lower the risk of crown fires, according to the final environmental impact statement for the project.
The project also would foster development of old-growth forests, invigorate aspen groves by cutting conifers that are shading out the sun-loving aspens, improve wildlife habitat connectivity and offer a more hospitable habitat to American martens. Special attention would be given to conditions in the 9.4 miles of the Eagle Creek Wild and Scenic River corridor, including "eliminating all temporary road construction and increasing forest resilience to promote a more aesthetically pleasing landscape," according to the Forest Service.
Schwalbach said the Wallowa-Whitman intends to offer five timber sales in as many years.
Combined, the sales would generate an estimated 48 million board-feet of material.
The Wallowa-Whitman hasn't sold that much timber, in any single year, for more than a decade.
"We know that wood products are a vital part of the regional economy and help small communities", said Holly Krake, public affairs officer for Wallowa-Whitman.
Forest officials estimate Snow Basin would create 80 jobs: 46 in harvesting and 34 in noncommercial forest thinning.
Snow Basin is noteworthy not only for its proposed timber volume, but because forest officials want to override an 18-year policy in which the Forest Service doesn't cut live trees larger than 21 inches in diameter.
In Snow Basin the cutting of those trees will be limited to grand firs, except in situations where the infestation of parasitic mistletoe is prolific in Douglas-firs, or in the case of other conifers that are crowding out aspen stands.
Removing "quite a few" of the grand firs would, Schwalbach said, promote the forest's "characteristic species" - ponderosa pines, tamaracks and aspens.
"It is important to note that all the treatments in the Snow Basin area are beneficial to restoring forest health," said Brian Watt, the Wallowa-Whitman's silviculturist.
Forest officials also are proposing to build fences around some aspen groves to keep livestock away.
Approximately 38.75 miles of road reconstruction is included in the plan. So are 5.3 miles of new temporary road construction and 3.7 miles of existing non-system routes. All temporary roads will be closed and rehabilitated after the project is finished.
The Snow Basin planning area is primarily within Paddy Creek-Eagle Creek and Little Eagle Creek areas. It also includes small parts of the Goose Creek, Lower Eagle Creek and East Fork Eagle Creek drainages.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement was expected to be included in today's edition of the Federal Register. This would trigger the start of the 45-day appeal period, and a subsequent 45-day resolution period.
Details about this project are available online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/wallowa-whitman/landmanagement/projects.