What do you get when two government agencies spend three-and-a-half years and $36 million on a mega-conservation plan covering all or part of seven states?
question environmentalists, Indian tribes, ranchers, loggers and
others in the Northwest are pondering following the release last
month of the Clinton administration's draft plan of the Interior
Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (Ice Bump for
The much-heralded experiment in ecosystem
management sets out an aggressive strategy for the arid basin. The
preferred alternative calls for burning and thinning forests,
increasing protection for salmon and bull trout, and maintaining
existing levels of livestock grazing. The plan covers 72 million
acres of national forest and BLM land within eastern Oregon and
Washington, Idaho, western Montana and parts of Nevada, Utah and
It seems to have something for
everyone, including 2,000 new jobs in ecological restoration and
3,800 new timber industry jobs. Yet few seem happy. No one knows
how the restoration work will be paid for. And conservationists say
the plan ignores the findings of 300 specialists who studied the
basin. Their report, released last December, found that only 6
percent of the rangeland and 17 percent of forested watersheds in
the basin had high ecological integrity - and nearly all the
healthy lands were in wilderness areas (HCN,
"The project is largely ignoring its own
studies," says Chris Zimmer of the Columbia River Bioregion
Campaign. The coalition of environmental groups has asked the
Forest Service and BLM to withdraw the plan for further
Columbia Basin Indian tribes criticize the
plan for failing to protect salmon streams across the basin.
Instead, say the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian
Reservation, the plan "passes the buck" to local federal land
managers to conduct studies and develop watershed-specific
The timber industry says it is baffled
by the plan. The preferred alternative calls for timber sale levels
on federal lands of about 1.7 billion board-feet annually - higher
than over the past three years but lower than in the 1980s. The mix
of species and the age of the trees sold would be different,
however. Instead of old-growth pine and larch, species that are
resistant to fire and insects, loggers would be offered younger
grand fir and white fir, in an effort to return the forest to a
more stable condition.
Jim Riley, vice president
of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, which represents
60 timber companies in Idaho and Montana, says the plan doesn't
clearly show which stands need to be restored, or set out a cutting
schedule to achieve forest health.
is also controversial, since the preferred alternative would allow
it to continue at current levels. David Dobkin, a Bend, Ore.,
biologist who participated in three scientific panels for the
interagency team that put the plan together, says the draft EIS
appears to ignore the work of those panels, which concluded that
"significant reductions' in grazing would have to be part of
"I am more than a little miffed
that the good work was not used, apparently," Dobkin says. "My
suspicion is that there's a load of politics in there somewhere."
Tom Quigley, who headed the scientific
assessment, denies that the preferred alternative ignores
scientific findings. "This is not about endorsing and giving
license to all grazing activities that are going on now," he says.
Grazing practices will be altered to protect streams, and cows will
be moved on and off federal land more quickly in some areas, he
said. Quigley also insists there's plenty of range to go around.
"We have some forage that is not being used," he
Ranchers and county officials applaud the
preferred alternative. "We worked hard on looking out for the
grazing interests," says Union County (Oregon) Commissioner John
Howard, who sits on an advisory committee representing the 100
counties in the basin.
But not hard enough to
satisfy Western Republicans in Congress who, a year ago, threatened
to withdraw funding for the project because they feared it would
lead to reductions in logging and grazing. At a recent hearing,
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig told federal officials that Congress would
not appropriate the additional $125 million needed to implement the
"I once was a supporter. I now am
very, very, very skeptical about this project," Craig told
From another perspective, some key scientists
left the project after concluding it had lost sight of the
project's mission, set in 1993 when President Clinton called for "a
scientifically sound and ecosystem-based strategy" for the basin.
The mission was vital because past and current management practices
have left the basin's forests vulnerable to fire and insects, have
crowded native grasses from public range, and driven wild salmon
and bull trout toward extinction.
As part of the
work, economists turned up surprising figures about the basin's
economic underpinnings: Logging and mills support 2.5 percent of
all jobs, cattle grazing supports 1 percent, and recreation
supports 14.6 percent. In a survey, basin residents ascribed the
highest value to wilderness and roadless areas. In last place came
cattle grazing, which affects more acres than any other activity.
In terms of proposed management, project
managers punted on establishing mapped reserves in pristine
roadless areas, where logging would be banned or curtailed. Only
one of the seven alternatives includes mapped reserves, and it
locks up land already affected by logging, grazing and mining.
Environmentalists say intact lands should be
preserved, and already impacted land should be restored by
obliterating roads, thinning young trees, revegetating riparian
areas and so on.
"None of these alternatives has
a sound scientific basis," says Joy Belsky, staff ecologist for the
Oregon Natural Desert Association. "'It's Log It or Lose It,"
"Graze It to Save It," and "Restoration is Better than Prevention."
The writer lives in