By Eric Barker

Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune

The U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn the recently completed management plans of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

The move restarts the 15-year-old process to revise the plans designed to guide the management of each of the forests that together cover more than 5 million acres of federal land across the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

More than 300 organizations and individuals filed specific objections to the plans. Issued last summer, the plans promised to support more than 2,800 jobs and provide income of $133 million annually, while doubling timber harvest and opening vacant grazing allotments.

Objectors included representatives of the timber and livestock industries, motorized recreation groups, county commissioners, environmental organizations, state wildlife management agencies and the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes.

In a letter to Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa in Portland, Christopher B. French, acting Forest Service deputy chief, wrote that the plans do not violate any “law, regulation or policy” but said they are complex, confusing and likely to lead to future fights over forest management. French’s comments themselves were vague, but he went out of his way to say the plans failed to meet the needs of local communities.

“For example, a number of plan content modifications occurred that were often complex and not well understood, and there were a number of changes in elected officials, organizations, other stakeholders and key Forest Service staff,” he wrote. “The revised plans also did not fully account for the unique social and economic needs of the affected communities. The resulting plans are 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.”

Lawson Fite, legal counsel for the American Forest Resource Council at Portland, said even though the plans called for increasing timber harvest and forest restoration, the details of how that would happen lacked specifics. Fite called the withdrawal a positive step.

Karen Coulter, of the environmental group Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project at Portland, said the plans lacked any enforceable standards and the agency provided scant details when it offered them up for public comment. Coulter said they failed to adequately address climate change, lacked the latest scientific information and eliminated what she sees as important safeguards such as a ban on harvesting large diameter trees and protecting streams from the negative effects of logging and grazing.

Eric Watrud, supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest at Pendleton, said Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., and at regional headquarters in Portland want to take a step back and produce a document that is easily understood and can be implemented while supporting both local communities and the environment.

Watrud said the agency will take the next several months to chart a path forward, and there isn’t yet a timeline to fix the deficiencies identified by French.