Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Draft version of Forest Plans for Blue Mountains national forests estimates an increase in logging over the next 15 years

By Jayson Jacoby


U.S. Forest Service officials from the three national forests in the Blue Mountains believe they can increase logging in the region over the next 15 years.

In the draft version of the revised management plans for the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests, which were released to the public Friday for a 90-day review and comment period, Forest Service officials delve into the past and look toward the future.

The documents over several hundred pages examine in detail not only logging but all aspects of forest policy, including motor vehicle access and road maintenance, wilderness designation and protecting habitat for elk and dozens of other species.

Perhaps the most dramatic change since 1990, when the current management plans for each of the three forests were adopted, is in the volume of commercial timber cut in the forests.

At that time the three forests together were producing close to 600 million board-feet of timber each year, according to the draft plan unveiled Friday.

Starting in the early 1990s, though, logging volumes plummeted.

Since 2004 the three forests' combined annual volume has averaged about 50 million board-feet.

Since 1990 the region has lost about 2,800 jobs in the timber industry in general - 2,300 of them in sawmills that have closed, according to the Forest Service.

Baker County's only sawmill, Ellingson Lumber Co.'s operation in Baker City, closed in March 1996.

The draft plan doesn't propose to return to the cutting levels of a quarter-century ago.

But the Forest Service's preferred alternative - it's designated Alternative E in the draft plan - calls for an annual harvest, from the three forests, of 162 million board-feet.

That's more than triple the average over the past decade or so.

There are no guarantees, to be sure.

Forest plans are designed as general guides to how officials manage national forests.

Specific projects such as timber sales are analyzed separately and are subject to appeals and lawsuits.

Some decisions - designating wilderness areas, for instance - are outside the Forest Service's jurisdiction altogether.

In the case of wilderness areas the Forest Service can recommend areas for wilderness designation but the final decision is left to Congress and the president.

As required by the federal National Environmental Policy Act, the draft plan for the Blue Mountains forests includes a range of alternative strategies - six in all.

Alternative A is the so-called "no action" alternative - meaning the status quo. The no action alternative's main purpose is as a baseline for comparing the differences between how the forests are managed now, and how they would be managed under each of the five "action" alternatives.

Among those five alternatives, Alternative C calls for comparatively little logging but proposes that Congress approve a substantial increase in the amount of wilderness - areas where logging and motor vehicles are banned.

The proposed addition of 505,000 acres of wilderness would be an increase of almost two-thirds over the national forests' current wilderness acreage of 759,000 acres (977,000 acres including the Hells Canyon Wilderness; it's not included in the draft forests' plan because those acres are within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, which has a relative new management plan and thus isn't part of the forests' plans revision).

Alternative D is in effect the opposite of Alternative C, recommending no new wilderness acreage and proposing an annual logging volume of 243 million board-feet, a nearly five-fold increase.

Alternative E - again, this is the Forest Service's preferred alternative - is a compromise between C and D.

Alternative E proposes designating 90,800 additional acres as wilderness, distributed among the three forests this way:

andbull; Umatilla: 40,100 acres

andbull; Malheur: 30,400 acres

andbull; Wallowa-Whitman: 20,300 acres

The Wallowa-Whitman's proposed wilderness acreage consists of two additions to existing wilderness areas: 10,770 acres in the Huckleberry Mountain area at the northwest corner of the Eagle Cap Wilderness; and 9,530 acres in the Twin Mountain and Dutch Flat Creek areas of the Elkhorn Mountains adjacent to the North Fork John Day Wilderness.

In terms of motor vehicle access and road maintenance, Alternative E would reduce by 10 percent, compared to the current situation, the acreage on the Wallowa-Whitman that could be designated for summer motor vehicle use.

The draft plan would not close any roads, though - that decision is part of the Wallowa-Whitman's pending travel management plan.

Alternative E doesn't propose any changes to the amount of livestock grazing allowed on the three forests, measured both by acreage and by animal-unit months.

Although Alternative E is the preferred alternative, that doesn't mean it's the strategy officials will choose.

Their final decision could include a mixture of elements from multiple alternatives.

As with the current forest plans, the draft revised plan includes road density goals - measured by the mileage of open road per square mile - but only in certain areas such as designated wildlife corridors.

In the "general forest" areas - the bulk of the Wallowa-Whitman's non-wilderness acreage, at 844,000 acres - Alternative E, according to the draft plan, "takes a different approach by moving away from road densities and instead focusing on the roads that are causing the biggest problems on the landscape to fish and aquatic ecosystems. ... the desired condition would focus on hydrologically disconnecting the roadbed from the stream system. This would involve replacing undersized culverts, out-sloping roads, hardening surfaces to reduce erosion, occasionally relocating or decommissioning roads to address the roads with a focus on watersheds with threatened and/or endangered aquatic fish species."