Think Out Loud

US Forest Service restarts discussions on Blue Mountains Forest Plan

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 22, 2023 10:02 p.m. Updated: May 31, 2023 9:41 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, May 24

The Canyon Creek Complex fire burned more than 110,000 acres, much of it in the Malheur National Forest, sparking a debate between loggers and environmentalists over whether to salvage log the burned trees.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire burned more than 110,000 acres, much of it in the Malheur National Forest, sparking a debate between loggers and environmentalists over whether to salvage log the burned trees.

Brandon Swanson


The Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests, collectively known as the Blue Mountains, have been operating on a forest-management plan developed in the 1990s. Previous attempts to revise that plan failed. Now, the U.S. Forest Service is restarting the process. Darcy Weseman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, and Eric Watrud, Umatilla National Forest supervisor, join us to talk about what this process for revising the Blue Mountains Forest Plan will look like and what will make this process a success.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you from Grant County this week. We’re almost surrounded here in John Day by the Malheur National Forest. It’s one of three forests, in addition to Umatilla and Wallowa Whitman National Forests, that are collectively known as the Blue Mountains. They make up a third of Oregon’s national forest land. They’re being managed under a plan that was developed in 1990, even though these plans are supposed to be revised at least every 15 years. That’s because efforts to revise the Blue Mountains plan have failed. After the most recent flame out in 2019, the Forest Service went back to the drawing board to try to get buy-in from various stakeholders earlier on in the process.

Darcy Weseman is a Public Affairs officer for the Umatilla National Forest. Eric Watrud is the supervisor for this National Forest. They join us now to talk about the future of the Blue Mountains Forest Plan and whether this time could be the charm. Eric Watrud and Darcy Weseman, welcome.

Darcy Weseman: Well, thank you for having us today. We’re happy to be here.

Eric Watrud: Good afternoon, thank you.

Miller: So the process to revise the plan started in 2004. 15 years later, it was officially declared dead. What makes these three national forests so difficult to find consensus on?

Watrud: So a forest plan is a really broad overarching document. Congress has asked us to develop these for national forests across the nation because it is so important to define the multiple uses that occur on a national forest. The forest plan provides a broad overarching framework. It doesn’t get into the nitty gritty specifics of where a recreation trail will be or where a timber sale might occur, it really provides a guide for forest-wide management activities. And that’s something that, justifiably, people have a lot of interest in, because it sets that long term guidance for national forests. And it takes time to have those conversations.

And here in the Blue Mountains, the three national forests that you mentioned, Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa Whitman, are very important to the communities, to the economies, to the cultural history of the area. And so in short, it’s a big deal. And it’s important that we do that in the right way, engaging with people to get their ideas for how we move forward and manage them in the future.

Miller: Are there other national forest plans, where a 15 year process to revise them took place, and resulted in no new plan?


Watrud: That’s a great question. There’s over 100 national forests around the country, and I don’t know specifically how long each forest plan has taken to develop for those various units. But it is very common for them to take years and years. And for here in the Blue Mountains, the 15 years of investment that went into the prior effort which was withdrawn really just doubles down on why it’s so important to get it right this time, and for us to not only come up with a durable plan that we can implement on the landscape, but for us to honor the investments that people in the community, tribes, other agencies, our own employees put into developing those plans. And that is one of the reasons why we’re so committed to being successful this time around.

Miller: Darcy Weseman, so you’re not starting from scratch with this new version? Can you give us a sense for where the revision stands today?

Weseman: Yeah, absolutely. As you know, the plans were withdrawn in 2019. And since that time frame, we’ve been working with our government leaders around the Blues to identify some opportunities to find some common ground and looking at those most contentious issues from the withdrawn forest plans, and where we can start from a better baseline to then go out with the public when we reinitiate that plan.

So we are looking this year to start that process. We’ll be using the 2012 planning rule, which is the most current planning rule which outlines the procedures for revising and the content within a forest plan. And when we do that, we’ll be starting with what we call the assessment phase. And it’s really looking at the existing conditions and asking for input about what those conditions look like on the landscape, what management concerns people have or what they would like to see in their future for us.

We won’t be starting from scratch. We do have a lot of good data and analysis from the withdrawn documents that we are currently looking at. And we’re comparing that to the 2012 planning rule to see if there’s some content we can use and some data that can help inform our assessment. But we will be starting from that first phase of that plan revision process.

The overall process itself includes assessment, and then we’d move into what people are more familiar with, with that formal National Environmental Policy Act where we’ll have a proposal and then we’ll ask for input, and we’ll draft alternatives and get additional input on that. The alternatives would be based off of the feedback we get from the public, so input is really important. We are looking to start that process this summer for the assessment. We are on track to move forward this year.

Miller: There are obviously so many competing priorities here in terms of logging, habitat, restoration, recreation of all different kinds, some of which don’t always play well together. It’s impossible to imagine that everyone’s gonna be thrilled with a final management plan. But Eric, what’s your own personal metric for a successful plan?

Watrud: Yeah, thank you. I just want to say your lead in of those multiple uses on a national forest, that’s actually my passion, that’s what brought me into natural resources management, is how do we balance those competing needs? Because you can’t accomplish every objective on every acre, but you can accomplish objectives overall. We’re looking at, across the three national forests, 5.5 million acres. And so really finding the right way with these forest plans to help guide that management across the entire landscape so that everyone in the communities can see themselves represented in the outcome.

As far as the metric of success, to me it’s gonna be a durable plan that we can actually implement. As I mentioned before, the forest plans themselves don’t have site specific projects within them, but they help guide how those projects are designed. And to me, that success would be getting to the phase where the community can come together with tribes, with federal agencies, state government, county government, and we can work together to design treatments across the landscape to protect communities that are relevant to what people need and desire to enjoy across the landscape, and that help preserve the local economy and infrastructure that we have, and really produce something that is resilient to disturbance. Being able to implement that to me is a key measure of success.

Miller: Eric Watrud and Darcy Weseman, thanks very much.

Weseman: Thank you.

Miller: Eric Watrud is the forest supervisor for the Umatilla National Forest. Darcy Weseman is public affairs officer for Umatilla National Forest. They joined us to talk about the latest efforts to revise the Blue Mountains Forest Plan.

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