The Forest Service is having another go at writing new long-term management plans for the three national forests in the Blue Mountains and this time, officials hope, things will be different.

Whether this new approach yields the success that has eluded the agency for more than a decade, however, is no certain thing.

The Forest Service has been working for about 15 years to write new management plans for the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests. Those documents serve as guidelines for forest officials as they make separate decisions about specific projects, such as timber sales, livestock grazing and recreation projects.

Although management plans are supposed to be replaced every 10 to 15 years, the current plans for the three national forests in the Blue Mountains date to 1990.

The Forest Service unveiled new plans in June 2018. But after hearing complaints about the plans from a variety of perspectives — some opponents contend the Forest Service didn’t propose enough logging, while others complained the agency wasn’t doing enough to preserve forests, among other issues — the agency’s regional forester, Glenn Casamassa, announced in March 2019 that the agency would restart the process.

The centerpiece of the Forest Service’s new approach is the Blues Intergovernmental Council. During the past year county commissioners from the region have been meeting with Forest Service officials to discuss ways to ensure that residents of the Blue Mountains will be involved in the planning process, and that their concerns will be considered as Forest Service employees write the management plans.

“The attempt here is to create just a more open, inclusive approach where the Forest Service is working closely with our communities in order to make sure that we are developing a plan that is gonna stand the test of time,” said Eric Watrud, supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest.

That sounds reasonable.

But it’s not as though the Forest Service’s previous attempts to write new plans were not “open” and “inclusive,” to borrow a pair of adjectives from Watrud.

Indeed, as federal law requires, the process gave residents several chances to express their opinions about draft versions of the plans either by attending public meetings or by submitting written comments.

And hundreds of people availed themselves of those opportunities.

Yet even with copious quantities of public comments, the plans the Forest Service put out in 2018 generated so much dissatisfaction that Casamassa decided to withdraw them.

The widespread condemnation was hardly surprising.

After all, opinions about how the Forest Service should manage these 5 million or so acres of public land vary about as widely as opinions on any topic. The notion that any management plan could come close to simultaneously satisfying people who think the agency isn’t cutting nearly enough trees, and people who think it’s cutting way too many, is not so much naive as hopelessly optimistic.

The concept behind the Blues Intergovernmental Council is sound. Using elected county commissioners as a sort of liaison between the public and the Forest Service could give residents a stronger sense that their comments are not only considered, but incorporated into the final product.

But at some point Forest Service officials need to acknowledge that the management plans will inevitably prove unpopular, in some respects, to just about everyone. Such is the nature of managing land on behalf of the public.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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