Union County Commissioner Donna Beverage believes there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
Beverage emerged with a sense of hope from a public forum in La Grande put on Saturday by the U.S. Forest Service for those with objections to its Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
“I do feel optimistic. I feel like we are making progress,” Beverage said.
The commissioner noted there were a number of high-ranking Forest Service officials from Washington, D.C., on the forum’s panel.
“This is the first time since the revision process began (15 years ago) that officials from there flew out here to find out how local people would be affected,” said Beverage, who noted that regional Forest Service officials had conducted previous forums on the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision.
The forum was one of five conducted in the region by Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Chris French. Mark Owens, a member of the Harney County Board of Commissioners, attended all five. Owens initially thought French was coming to Northeast Oregon as a token gesture.
“I honestly thought he was coming here to check a box, but I was proven wrong,” Owens said. “He was trying to learn and listen, (and) he did an exceptional job.”
Beverage said French’s sincerity was evident when he repeated questions from those who spoke to make sure he heard them correctly.
“I was impressed with that,” she said.
Beverage and Owens participated in the La Grande forum as members of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association, which is made up of county commissioners from Union, Wallowa, Baker, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow and Sherman counties.
The Eastern Oregon Counties Association was one of a number of organizations and individuals who expressed concerns about the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Plan as registered Objectors.
One concern expressed by the Eastern Oregon Counties Association is how the proposed plan could reduce forest access through road closures. Beverage said reducing access would have many negative consequences. For example, closing roads would make it impossible for firefighters and their trucks to get into a wildfire.
“You cannot fight fires (effectively on the ground) when there are no roads,” she said.
The Union County Commissioner said when the Forest Service closes roads, it makes them impassable by laying trees across them and putting in water bars.
“They do a lot more than put up gates,” Beverage said.
The Eastern Oregon Counties Association also opposes additional road closures because they would prevent people from enjoying forests for recreational purposes, including the handicapped and riders of all-terrain vehicles.
Beverage also pointed out reduced road access would mean the remaining open roads would become more crowded. This would make visiting the forest less enjoyable and harm the accessible land, which would receive more intensive use by campers, hikers, anglers and others.
In a document submitted to the Forest Service, the Eastern Oregon Counties Association noted the proposed plan seeks to boost elk security by 30 percent. Owens described this goal as a backdoor way of restricting forest access, and the association’s document called it “simply a surrogate for road closures.”
The Blue Mountains plan’s proposed limits on grazing were also discussed. Beverage said grazing restrictions would have a number of drawbacks. For example, she said grazing restrictions, like logging restrictions, allow fuels such as grasses to build up, making forests more susceptible to major wildfires.
“Grazing keeps forage down, preventing large fires,” Beverage said. “Cattle can be a good tool for managing forests.”
Wolves were also discussed at the forum. Owens said it would be best if the forest management plans do not address wolves.
“The Forest Service does not manage wildlife, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife does,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service will present an updated Blue Mountains Forest Plan in 2019 after considering the objections presented in the recent forums. Owens hopes that substantial changes are made and he said he has reason to be optimistic.
“(The Forest Service officials at the forums) are definitely interested in our concerns,” Owens said.