Union County Commissioner Donna Beverage and other members of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association flew to Washington D.C. to speak to the head of the U.S. Forest Service. Through that exchange — and several other meetings — the group came back with some very good news for the Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman Forest Plan revisions.

The Regional Forester has been instructed to withdraw the draft Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the three revised plans.

According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Forest Service Acting Deputy Chief and Reviewing Officer Chris French issued a letter to Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa explaining his instruction.

“Many factors compounded to produce revised plans that would be difficult to implement,” French said. “While my review did not identify any specific violations of law, regulation, or policy, significant changes occurred over the 15-year time period of the planning process.”

French added that a number of plan modifications occurred that were often complex and not well understood, and there were frequent changes in organizations, stakeholders and key Forest Service staff. The revised plans also did not fully account for the unique social and economic needs of local communities in the area.

“The resulting plans are very difficult to understand, and I am concerned that there will be ongoing confusion and disagreement as to how each Revised Plan is to be implemented,” French added in the release.

Beverage said the meetings in D.C. were about the 2005 Travel Management Rule for motorized vehicle use in the Blue Mountains Forest Plan. The forest plan is an outline that “describe(s) the social, economic, and ecological goals of National Forests and provide(s) frameworks for future management decisions,” according to the U.S. Forest Service’s website.

The Forest Plans for the Umatilla, Malheur, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests have been under revision for nearly 15 years, according to the press release. The Final EIS, three Revised Plans, and the draft Record of Decision were released in June 2018 for the pre-decisional objection process. Approximately 350 objections were filed on a variety of issues, most significant being access and travel management, impacts of the plan decisions on local communities, the Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy, wildlife issues, and forest management. Objection resolution meetings were held in five different communities in November and December of 2018. Over 300 people participated, voicing concerns and clarifying objections on a wide variety of issues.

Beverage said one commissioner from each county in the Eastern Oregon Counties Association participated in these meetings, which included meeting with the Chief of the Forest Service, Rep. Greg Walden’s Office, Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office and US Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“(The forest service) is moving forward,” Beverage said. “Their goal is to build relationships and trust with local communities.”

She said they want to re-engage with local teams and constituents to get work done on the ground.

“We have to trust (them) to be successful and when we don’t work together for the common good of the forest then no one wins.”

French said those who have worked on this plan for the last 15 years deserve recognition for their hard work and commitment.

“I also realize how much dedication, energy, time, and effort that the public has put into this process,” French said. “I am confident that the information and data collected and analyzed, as well as the breadth of objection issues, can be used to inform our next steps.”

Existing Land and Resource Management Plans, as amended, will remain in place as the Forest Service determines next steps for the Umatilla, Malheur, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

See complete story in Friday's Observer