New Regional Forester On Meet-and-Greet Tour

Recently named Region 6 U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Mary Wagner [here] was joined by U.S. Congressman Greg Walden at a community meeting in Enterprise, Oregon, last month. The two heard serious complaints about USFS management. From the Wallowa County Chieftain [here]:

FS looks to new tools for new times

Tour conducted by Congressman Walden introduces brand-new regional forester to ‘passionate’ testimony in Elgin, exemplary problem-solvers in Enterprise

By Kathleen Ellyn and Samantha Bates, Wallowa County Chieftain & East Oregonian, 10/30/2008

Brand-new Region 6 U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Mary Wagner wanted to assure rural counties that she was as eager to see management policy changes in the Forest Service as they were.

“We need new tools for new times,” she admitted to a group of more than 30 citizens, timber industry leaders, representatives from environmental, tribal and community organizations and county officials Oct. 22 in Enterprise.

“Today there is a call to experiment with different things because doing what we’re doing is not getting us to the goal we want,” she said. “We have an obligation to look at things a different way.”

She was preaching to the choir.

By the time she rolled into Enterprise in the company of county payments champion U.S. Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR), who was continuing his 16-county, 63-meeting tour, she had heard loud and clear from every community in her region that what the Forest Service needed was a complete overhaul of its business model.

Wagner came to Enterprise fresh from a meeting in Elgin where more than 100 people representing the iron triangle -the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur National Forests - let her know in no uncertain terms that, thanks to management practices on National Forest lands, the timber industry was all but dead in Eastern Oregon.

“We are on the edge right now, quite candidly,” said Boise Cascade Inland Manager Tom Insko. Furthermore, Insko said, if the Union County Boise Cascade Mill failed, that failure would have repercussions throughout the community. Every mill job created 2.81 jobs elsewhere in the county, he said. “So, 700 jobs create almost 2,000 jobs. The demise of the forest products industry in this county will be huge given the economic pace it provides for this community.”

Union County Commissioner Colleen MacLeod, who also spoke for the group “Enough is Enough” which represents industry stakeholders in eight counties, told Wagner that the desperation of the counties had reached critical mass. Three mills had closed in Wallowa, Grant and Harney counties, she said, with a total loss of 198 jobs, those jobs, added to others lost since 1991 brought the total of lost timber jobs to 3,000 in the last 17 years. If Insko’s math held that would mean a loss of more than 8,000 jobs.

“It’s time to take action,” MacLeod said. “I hope it’s not too late.”

MacLeod advocated a relationship between timber harvest and forest health, basically saying that if the timber wasn’t harvested it would burn.

“The Wallowa mill closed last year for want of 50 million board feet,” she said. “The [Egley Complex Fire] alone burned 500 million. That is criminal.”

Again and again over the last 20 years local residents of forest-based communities have pleaded with the USFS to undertake active management to protect Federally-owned forests and watersheds from catastrophic fire through restoration forestry. Yet over those same 20 years the USFS has steadily abandoned active management, and catastrophic fires have increasingly plagued the West.

For 16 years we have suffered under the Northwest Forest Plan, a complete bust that has failed to save spotted owls (the population has crashed by 60%), failed to protect owl habitat (fire after fire has incinerated old-growth), and failed to protect our rural economy (the highest rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, and foreclosure in the USA for 16 years running). Of course, the NWFP is not the fault of the USFS. Clinton and his cronies jammed the NWFP down our throats. It is also true that our grafting, pork barrel U.S. Congress has turned their backs on the rural West, because Walden and his ilk have done absolutely nothing to overturn the NWFP. Wall street gamblers get a trillion dollar bailout, but the rural West gets crumbs and oppressive, absurdist regulations that strangle us and harm, not protect, the environment.

NWFP restrictions on forest management have spread to Eastern Oregon as well. Buffer zones and “screens” on forest treatments have all but halted any active management. It should noted that no-treatment rules designed to “protect” streams don’t work. That’s because wildfires burn right to the water’s edge [here].

The USFS is not innocent of criminal mismanagement of our forests, however. Some 30 national forests have adopted Let It Burn programs, writing whoofoo (WFU, Wildland Fire Use) and hammer (AMR, Appropriate Management Response) into Forest Plans, without public notice and without the slightest nod toward public involvement. As a direct result forests across Oregon and the West are being incinerated. During last summer alone:

* The Bridge Creek WFU Fire [here, here] was allowed to burn freely in the Mitchell, OR, watershed and an additional 2,000 acres of private land were incinerated, too. Suppression costs were over $4 million and the damages were at least 10 times that amount. The resource losses to water, soils, vegetation, and wildlife habitat will reverberate for decades.

* The Middlefork Fire [here, here] (an AMR non-suppression “suppression” fire) was watched as it burned 21,125 acres of the Middle Fork of the Rogue River watershed. Eventually the fire spread to within 3 miles of population centers in the Klamath Valley and some suppression action had to taken. About $18,413,719 worth. Heritage old-growth forests were destroyed and the watershed damage will take a century or more to heal.

* The Rattle Fire [here, here] (another AMR non-suppression “suppression” fire) was under control at less than 1,000 acres, but the USFS decided the “appropriate response” was to pull the firefighters and Let It Burn. Eventually the Rattle Fire burned 20,226 acres, including the entire 19,100 acre Boulder Creek Wilderness. Over $30 million was spent watching the Rattle Fire burn some of the most revered old-growth forests in Oregon. The North Fork of the Umpqua River will run thick with sediment for many years, damaging a world-class fly fishing river and impacting downstream water users for decades. The old-growth will never return, as that forest has been converted to “early successional” fire-type brush.

* In Northern California over 1,000 square miles were burned in hammer (AMR) fires, including the Siskiyou Complex, Iron Complex, Ukonom Complex, Blue 2 Fire, Bear Wallow Complex, Lime Complex, Yolla Bolly Complex, Soda Complex, and Panther Fire, to name a few [here]. Some of these fires were kept burning for three solid months through elaborate back burning from miles away. By October nearly $400 million had been spent, and twelve firefighters had lost their lives. The summer-long smoke ruined crops and endangered human health across three or four states. Priceless forests have been ruined beyond repair, and impacts to water, air, vegetation, habitat, public health, public safety, and recreation is in the tens of $billions, if it can be measured at all.

* Whoofoo (WFU) fires blew up in California (Clover WFU) [here], Idaho (South Barker WFU) [here], Wyoming (Gunbarrel WFU) [here], and Nevada (East Slide Rock Ridge WFU) [here], as well as Oregon.

The USFS claims whoofoos are “used for resource benefit” yet they cannot scientifically demonstrate, much less quantify, the alleged benefits. The NEPA process is supposed to examine the effects, “beneficial” as well as detrimental, of Federal actions in an open and transparent manner, but the USFS has deliberately eschewed any NEPA process when it comes to adopting whoofoo and hammer into their Forest Plans.

By avoiding any public process or review, they have subverted the law and denied rural communities the right to have a voice in USFS programs that profoundly affect the residents of those communities. Catastrophic fires have resulted that not only broke the USFS budget but inflicted damages on forests, watersheds, and landscapes that will linger for generations.

The residents are quite aware of all that. More from the Wallowa County Chieftain article:

More than 40 people from Grant County bussed up to join the Elgin group and make their views known. Among them was County Judge Mark Webb who argued that forest health and county health were the same. “You cannot have forest health unless you have economic health,” he said. “Those two things are coupled together. If you separate them, everything’s gone.”

Webb’s comments were mirrored at the meeting in Enterprise later that day when Nils Christoffersen, executive director of a collaborative, community development organization, Wallowa Resources, reminded Wagner that, “When management is good for the land and the land owner, it’s conservation. If one of them is suffering, it is not.”

Congressman Greg Walden chipped in some comments for Regional Forester Wagner:

If the specter of rampant development were not sufficient to activate changes in policy, Congressman Walden added the very real likelihood that if the timber industry died, the budget-challenged Forest Service might be unable to either access their own holdings or manage them.

“We are desperately close to losing that infrastructure,” Walden warned. “I’d put your money where you could generate money. That would generate money to do the other things we don’t have money for.”

Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward added to Walden’s Budgeting 101 lecture by advising the Forest Service to take the advice so often given to cash-strapped rural communities: tighten your belt and find new income streams.

“If you don’t have the money to manage the resources you have, you adjust, you downsize,” he said. “And that’s a foreign concept to the federal government - getting rid of some of their holdings. I think it’s something they need to look at; are there lands that somebody else could do a better job of managing?”

In addition to looking at the option of subcontracting more services, such as recovery/restoration work after fires, the Forest Service ought also to look at streamlining its approach, Walden added.

“Change the laws that cause the process to be the most cumbersome on the planet,” he suggested. “No other land management agency faces this problem (of cumbersome process). The State of Oregon, under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, can go in within days or weeks of a forest fire and begin the restoration/recovery work. Tribal nations can get in within days or weeks.”

The irony in that statement is that Walden is a lawmaker, not Wagner. The Regional Forester does not make laws, Congressmen do. Walden would be well-advised to follow his own advice. Talk is cheap; actions count. In fact, talk talk talk is getting us nowhere:

Both Wagner and Walden commended Wallowa Resources as an example of a leader in partnership and collaboration, but Christoffersen refused to let the compliment soften his determination to see real progress, rather than more talk.

“In the nine years I’ve been here we’ve had several of these types of meetings and there has always been a sense of urgency and it really just gets bigger,” he said. “I think everyone knew there was an up front investment in collaboration and once you build that collaboration the frames go up pretty quick and you can finish the house off. We need to do that.”

It is nice that Mary Wagner is meeting and greeting the citizenry. I salute her efforts in that regard. It is nice that Greg Walden participates in the palaver. But nice is not enough. It is time for real action on both Wagner’s and Walden’s parts.

Real action means instituting landscape-scale restoration forestry [here]. And sooner rather than later.



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