The Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project, along with two others, were passed over to the newly formed Blue Mountain Interdisciplinary Team based in Pendleton. They took on the Lower Joseph Creek project this fall and by Jan. 9 it was posted in the Federal Register. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project still open for public comment
ENTERPRISE — Restoring 90,000 acres in northern Wallowa County is a top priority not only for the county, but for a U.S. Forest Service team of scientists dedicated to bringing back the resiliency of Eastern Oregon forests.
The Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project came out of the county’s own watershed assessment work. Five years in the making, last summer it was adopted by the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Collaborative, a group of stakeholders from agencies, private business and special interest groups who meet monthly in La Grande to focus on restoring ecological balance to Eastern Oregon forests, reducing fire hazards and providing jobs in the timber industry.
The project, along with two others, were passed over to the newly formed Blue Mountain Interdisciplinary Team based in Pendleton. They took on the Lower Joseph Creek project this fall and by Jan. 9 it was posted in the Federal Register.
Mike Hayward, board of commissioners chairman, said the scoping period is the time to get the project’s issues on the table and craft alternatives that will go into the draft Environmental Impact Statement.
“The project is in an accelerated time frame. We are trying to get forest restoration on a bigger and faster scale,” Hayward said. “This is supported by the Washington office of the Forest Service and the governor.”
Part of the Forest Service’s environmental review is hosting a public meeting within the 30-day comment period. Members of the team, headed by Bill Aney, spoke to nearly 100 people Thursday.
Bruce Dunn, president of the county’s natural resource advisory committee, said the assessments led by the committee analyzes streams in the county in order to enhance and maintain watersheds for salmon on a watershed by watershed basis.
In the 1990s, the county wrote its own salmon plan, Dunn said.
“We wrote the plan and took it to Washington, D.C.,” Dunn said. “No one signed off on it except the commissioners.”
He said in the mid-1990s the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners created the Natural Resource Advisory Committee combining different subcommittees to advise and implement the county’s salmon plan. In 1999, it was updated to a multi-species plan including wolves, bald eagles, wolverines — wildlife either listed as threatened and endangered or on the bubble of being included. From there the committee started doing watershed assessments, Dunn said.
In 2001, the Upper Joseph Creek assessment was started which covered Crow Creek, Chesnimnus Creek and Pine Creek — tributaries south of Forest Road 46.
“We said, ‘Let’s do a community planning process with landowners and permittees invited to participate,’” Dunn said. “We thought it would take six months until we found out the data was 20 to 30 years old. You can’t do an assessment on existing conditions with old data, so the county had to find money and hire local contractors to survey roads, riparian areas, forest, range, so we knew what was out there. It took five years to complete this plan. All with volunteers and contractors.”
The plan spawned five vegetation projects, two culvert replacements and a bridge installation. Dunn said an Oregon State University economist valued the work that came from the Upper Joseph Creek assessment at $6 million in local economic impact.
In 2007, Lower Joseph Creek was started with the same process.
“We integrated these assessments for restoration and management and we gave it to the Forest Service locally and said, ‘We sure would like some projects done, but with their workload and capacity they said they couldn’t do anything until 2016-17,’” Dunn said. “Then the county commissioners from three counties formed the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Collaborative and we went to the meeting and said we want Lower Joseph to be the No. 1 project, and they said OK.”
Some in attendance Thursday night were concerned that the project would close forest roads. Dunn said 81 miles of roads within the project area are already naturally closed, grown in from lack of maintenance and use and not driveable.
“We might open some of those roads to log and then close them again,” Dunn said. “No one’s deemed them necessary to open in 20 years.”
If all goes as planned, a final environmental impact statement will be signed by December and implementation of the project will begin in 2015.
After the presentation by county and Forest Service representatives, those in attendance had more than an hour to speak one-on-one with team members about the specifics of the project. Ayn Shlisky, Blue Mountain Team member, said the official comment period started Jan. 9 and ends Feb. 10.