New designation could speed up forest projects

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

The U.S. Forest Service has designated national forestlands in Central Oregon and elsewhere that are prone to insect infestation, disease outbreaks and massive wildfires, a move that could speed up projects aimed at improving forest health.

“If there is a project that is (focused on) a growing concern, this could expedite that and help the work get done on the ground,” said Dan Postrel, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Gov. John Kitzhaber requested the designation in April and the agency approved the request in May. Congressional lawmakers made tweaks to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 in passing this year’s farm bill. The changes allow governors to call for the forest designations, which speeds up environmental review of some projects.

“Insect and disease activity is a natural part of forest succession,” Kitzhaber wrote in his request letter. “But when epidemic levels are reached or outbreaks are no longer isolated, the issue becomes symptomatic of larger forest health concerns.”

He wrote that treatment projects should improve forest resilience to insects, disease and fire.

“These are not currently healthy forests,” Postrel said.

In his request, Kitzhaber commended the ongoing work of forest groups collaborating around the state and said he hopes the designation doesn’t undermine their efforts. The groups bring together diverse stakeholders to help guide the management of national forestland.

People involved in such collaboratives are studying the new designation and trying to determine how it relates to their projects, said Phil Chang, program administrator at the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council and a member of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project.

So far it looks like the biggest change brought by the designation is that small projects, covering about 3,000 acres, could move faster through the federal environmental review . Chang said current projects cover 20,000 to 30,000 acres so an unanswered question is whether it would be worth it to divide them into smaller projects or keep the plans as they are.

“I think it remains to be seen whether this new opportunity has much utility or not,” Chang said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Bulletin file photo A lodgepole pine in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area killed by mountain pine beetles, right, stands out among a sea of green in 2006. A U.S. Forest Service designation of national forestland prone to hazards such as insect infestation was approved in May.