Forest Service tries again on Blue Mountains plan revision

The revision of the three national forest plans encompassing the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington is becoming a poster child for failing to finish forest planning.

Northwest Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa announced in March 2019 the Forest Service was scrapping the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision, which includes the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur. A final draft of the plans had been released in June 2018. It was not the first time the Blue Mountain Forest Plan had been paused.A draft version of the plans was completed in 2014, and received so much backlash that local forest supervisors decided to develop new plan alternatives.

So they’re trying something new:

The Blues Intergovernmental Council has been formed to help frame the process of developing a new methodology for forest planning for the Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur and Umatilla national forests. A series of meetings between county commissioners and key Forest Service personnel have been held across the Blue Mountain region over the past year to help kickstart a framework for cross-jurisdiction work.

“The underlying intent is to ensure that we can develop plans for the three national forests that would provide the opportunity for durable relationships with our communities and to make an important difference on the landscape for the long term,” said Eric Watrud, the forest supervisor on the Umatilla National Forest.  Watrud said the council includes state and county representatives in Oregon and Washington, four treaty tribes and regulatory agencies, in addition to the Forest Service.

“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,” he said. “We have the responsibility of stewarding the management of these three national forests, which are a national and local treasure. And so there’s a tremendous amount of interest, and our intent is to make sure that we’re incorporating that feedback, incorporating those ideas and local suggestions in order to make sure that we accomplish that goal.”

A better process for local input – that’s ok. But this is obviously “inclusive” of only “local” “communities.”  I assume this is only part of the story (as suggested by the forest supervisor’s careful reference to “a national and local treasure”), but I hope they aren’t (maybe again) setting up expectations that won’t be met.

17 thoughts on “Forest Service tries again on Blue Mountains plan revision”

  1. You know what has been said…the FS’s decisions on process seem to be less about getting it right the first time and more about being able to afford to redo (1 or more times) the same decision.

  2. I find this Eastern Oregon process quite fascinating. I know the long-time locals just want to be heard and not disrespected. Previous drafts apparently had a lot of road closures and perhaps other restrictions, and those folks haven’t taken kindly to the closure trend. I get it. I don’t know enough to comment on specifics. I just want to follow any discussion.

    • Forest Plans don’t make decisions on closing roads, and this one did not have any road closures per se in previous drafts. Yes, there were standards and guidelines for road density for big game habitat quality and for water quality (a lot of roads in the Blue Mountains have a stream for the “ditch” on one side of the road), but those would have been analyzed and implemented on a project-specific basis and in the Travel Management Plan.

      • Exactly correct, Anonymous. But correct only within the USFS space/time continuum.

        In the Universe I live in forest plans establish management standards that REQUIRE all sorts of site specific actions, including road, trail and snowmobile closures.

        This blog has discussed the RWA standard in R2 for example.

        The point is many stakeholders are sick to death of agency people saying things like that. And I’m sick to death of my comments regarding an alternative’s impacts on recreation being “ruled” as irrelevant because “Forest plans don’t make decisions on closing roads.”

  3. I’m just thinking…
    all the process in the world may not be able to settle disagreements or find a solution that satisfies everyone. This has always been the assumption that “if the FS did things right then there wouldn’t be unrest/litigation.” But that might not be the case. Any solution that some people feel strongly about and have lawyers on their side will lead to litigation.

    Unlike Tony, I’m not so sure that the FS can get things “right” and I’m not so sure that this multifactorial question of all the decisions in a forest plan can have a “right” answer.

    Is the goal for “everyone to be equally unhappy?” A deal where all groups win and lose something, but is seen to be fair? In whose eyes?

    It looks like there is a group Blue Mountain Forest Partners that does multi party monitoring and has zones of agreement for projects.

    • I never did like the saying, “If everyone is unhappy, then the FS decision must be ‘right’.” To me, that is a cop-out for people who do not like the decision, but do not want to put in the hard work of meeting/working with others who have divergent viewpoints. So, if the audience is not going to make that effort (yes, I am keeping this simplistic to make a point), then the effort to make sense of all these divergent viewpoints lands in the FS’s lap. And a compromise decision is unlikely to satisfy everyone.

      Where the FS can get it “right” is from our recent blog conversation about collaboration (using the Montana roundtable that recently occurred as the reference). In my opinion, at the end of the day, the outcome of land management planning has less to do with any influential science and more about managing human perspective and psyche. However, natural resource professionals are ill-equipped to succeed with managing the social aspect of planning.

  4. This new Facebook post is from “Forest Access for All”, a group of irate Eastern Oregon folks who have been protesting the Forest Plan drafts. Up until now they haven’t been satisfied with Forest Plans, a fact that is proving to be crucial. They also linked an article about growing wildfire risks that I haven’t included (I’m not sure if I can put links into our comments).

    “As the Forest Service prepares to ram another version of the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision down our throats we will see articles like this continue to come out.
    While we all recognize a fire danger in our mountains, there is a difference in opinion as to what causes the danger and how to address it. The answer from the bureaucrats at the Forest Service is to “restore” what they have already ruined.
    Through “vegetative” projects the Forest Service attempts to show action on the landscape by treating postage stamp size areas all the while telling the public they are trying, but the environmental community keeps them from completing the work. The projects always supports a road closure/people restriction component, ALWAYS.
    The removal of roads from the landscape and the closure of “cross country travel” is not the way to better manage our forests and the vegetation that grows within them.
    Another answer is to burn 50,000 ac’s of forest a year, per forest (Wallowa Whitman, Malhuer, Umatilla) in an attempt to reduce fuel loads, while still destroying roads.
    Please contact your county commissioners and let them know that as they allow the forest service to develop the Blue Mountains Forest Plan through Informed Consent, that you as a resident do not give your consent to develop such a plan without the Counties having a decision making process that supports the individual counties right to address their residents concerns.
    We want to make sure every person in the 11 Eastern Oregon Counties know, you do have county commissioners that support keeping an open forest for you to sustain our families. But you also have county commissioners that think that your use of the mountains of Eastern Oregon is recreational, and support a non-decision making process through Informed Consent, where the Forest Service gives notice of what they will be doing (informing the counties) and since the counties agreed that if they were at least informed of action, whether they agree with it or not, the Forest Service will be allowed to move forward with closing the forest, or reducing cattle numbers, or closing campgrounds, or declaring all waters within the forest primary use to be for fish habitat, and restricting irrigation water, municipal water, and on, and on, and on.
    Get the point as to why Informed Consent is not a decision making process, and bad for the people of Eastern Oregon. And what’s worse is, our County Governments agreed to it.
    Counties relinquishing their legal right to direct one on one coordination for a plan that is consistent with their individual counties natural resources plan is a fundamental break in trust with those that elected them to their representative positions in county government. Let us be very clear, we have Women & Men in our County Commissions/Courts that want to do the right thing, but unfortunately when put in a group of their peers fall into the trappings of Group Think which causes an aggressive few to control the discussion because people do not want to go against the grain and be looked down on by their peers. And for those few that do speak up, they are treated poorly because of it.”

    It’s clear they feel they aren’t being adequately represented, and that the new process is once again a set-up for failure.

  5. That just made me feel old. Or, I should say, older. In days past it was “Invoke Coordination.” Now it’s “Informed Consent.”

    Not to say that these “irate Eastern Oregon folks” don’t have a point. They may. But I don’t think that illusive “Silver Bullet” they seem to be seeking exists.

    • Brian, I think it’s a gift to have us older folks around to put things in historical perspective. Especially since there is a narrative that goes “everything is worse than it’s ever been.”

      In the wise words of the author of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes (thought to be 450-200 BCE) (the views of an aging and reflective wise person):

      “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. There is a thing of which [someone] will say, “See this, it is new.” It has already been for ages which were before us. [But] there is no remembrance of former [generations], neither will the later ones that will be have any remembrance among those that will be afterwards.”

  6. “Consent” is not part of forest planning at all. The quoted Facebook post from “Forest Access for All” contains echos of the “coordination” movement, discussed here (also in the Blue Mountains): They do NOT have a “legal right to direct one on one coordination for a plan that is consistent with their individual counties natural resources plan.”

    I think a reason for failure of past efforts could be failure of the Forest Service to make clear at the outset what the scope of the agency’s legal decision-space is. They don’t like to say “no,” but I’d argue that understanding the sideboards is a key to successful collaboration. “Zones of agreement” should include this. For motorized use, there must be good reasons for reducing it and those should be front and center, but I suspect some won’t agree with those reasons. (Interestingly, a couple of the BMFP “zones of agreement” I looked at were to reduce roads.)

    While it’s not true, I’m sympathetic to the impression that forest plans “require” site-specific actions to reduce motorized use. Where the desired condition is for less than there is now, then one should expect future travel planning and closure orders to move it that direction. Though this may never happen, impacts on recreation shouldn’t be ignored at the plan level. Amending the plan to allow exceptions could still be an option later, but forest plan decisions are actually important.

    • A plan that “requires” future project decisions is an unfortunate interpretation of what a plan actually does. A plan should describe the future landscape, which is premised on a robust discussion of what people (ALL people, whether they be local, regional, or national interests) want to see from their public lands. Once that future landscape is agreed upon (a part of the planning process that quickly gets mired in conflict), the FS then has a clear rationale to propose/authorize projects to achieve that desired outcome (again, achieving what everyone, or most people, want).

      But, alas, the process involves humans, with their frailties and biases, who deliberately or inadvertently put sand in the planning process gears. So, what could be a relatively simple exercise in developing/revising a land management plan turns into a mud wrestling ring where all who participate get dirty trying to grab the “right” answer. Relying on local government officials to help level the planning playing field is not as altruistic as people may think – my observation has been county commissioners do not honor the regional or national aspects of public land and can be the main source of conflict when the planning process attempts to describe the future landscape that is agreeable to people.

      • So Tony, this might be one area that concrete and abstract thinkers can’t really see the same thing. For me, the desired conditions were too general (happy healthy forests and communities) or specific (let’s replicate the forests of the 1850’s and hope the associated species tag along- that means 230,000 acres of LPP in the 50-80 age class).

        I sat in public meetings where others had the same problem of wrapping their head around these “ideas about things” when they wanted to talk about “things” like continuing to have access to their treasured places, or kicking other potential or current users out, or whatever. Maybe the current practices of the two-stage planning process cause more confusion/disagreement/time involvement by citizens than necessary.

        If, as some have experienced, County Commissioners can be more about the “idea of things” than “things”, like the idea of maintaining a certain level of jobs or whatever, then perhaps changing the decision space to something more concrete would work better to get better alignment among interests. Having a smaller target for each decision might mean reduced interest by the ideologically oriented.

        Yes, I know there’s a legal requirement for NFMA, but hopefully we’ve learned a lot about how planning works since 1976.

        • The 2012 Planning Rule requirement is for desired conditions to be “specific.” Unfortunately, we’re still seeing too many “happy forests,” but for recreation, it’s pretty straightforward: Recreation Opportunity Spectrum. And mostly, should it be motorized or not. That doesn’t seem too hard. (There could be an “access” issue that goes beyond recreation, but it could be dealt with the same way.)

            • The existing forest plans (at least the W-W) have ROS classifications. They have not done travel management planning. Here is the direction from the regional forester in 2015: ” Upon completion of the Forest Plan Revision, which is anticipated to occur in 2016, the Forest will resume the development of Subpart B of the 2005 Travel Management Rule.” (Subpart B is actual travel planning.)
              (I believe that most national forests have completed travel management planning – but good luck finding any national info on the FS website.)


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