WALLA WALLA, Wash. - The ground rules are posted in prominent view of everybody in the room: Be courteous. No verbal or personal attacks.
It might sound like seventh
grade, but this meeting is for grown-ups. The leaders of the
nation's most ambitious experiment in ecosystem management are
taking questions from an audience of timber industry
representatives, grass-roots environmentalists and local government
The questions pile up: How will the
rights of a fifth-generation timber worker be weighed? How will
people be compensated for lost spiritual values? Will wilderness
areas be allowed to burn? What about water conservation? Will the
impact of livestock grazing on salmon be taken into
"Have we agreed yet
on whether people are part of an ecosystem?" asks George Pozzuto,
leader of one team which has the daunting task of writing an
environmental impact statement covering 30 million acres of federal
land. "I'm not sure we're there yet."
question underlying the Eastside Ecosystem Management Project
doesn't have to be voiced: When this $20 million government
planning exercise involving 60 million acres of public land is
completed, will the public accept the results?
The Project aims to plot the future of the Interior Columbia Basin,
which encompasses eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, all of
Idaho, and portions of four other states, from the crest of the
Cascade Mountains to the Continental Divide in western Montana and
south into Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. The region includes many of
the last de facto roadless areas over 100,000 acres as well as 19
While the Project struggles
to define itself, the inland region is in a biological and
As the former top federal
forest official for the region put it, the forests on the Eastside
- a reference to the compass direction from the coastal Cascade
Mountains - are "unraveling."
forests have been severely weakened by drought, fire suppression,
insect infestations and excessive logging of healthy ponderosa
* A century of livestock grazing has left
many streams shallow, polluted and so warm they're inhospitable to
salmon and other native fish.
* Protection of
endangered salmon of the Columbia-Snake River system is forcing the
Northwest into a hard reassessment of the cost of
* Tribal rights to the Columbia
fishery may yet be decided in court.
* Two major
open-pit gold mines have been proposed in the
* People are having to give ground so
that wolves, grizzly bears and woodland caribou can roam
* Most recently, this summer's outbreak of
wildfires that burned 1.5 million acres in the region has ignited a
debate over what kind of salvage logging and thinning "treatments'
The effort to respond to such
crises and controversy on the Eastside already stands in contrast
to the first attempt at huge-scale ecosystem management. The first
attempt focused on forests west of the Cascades crest. It has been
under way for more than a year and sometimes seems to have lost any
friend it ever had.
shredding on the Eastside
The pioneer Westside
planning effort was run very differently.
core team of scientists on the Westside, led by Jack Ward Thomas
(now the Forest Service chief), worked behind locked doors in a
downtown Portland bank tower. The atmosphere of secrecy triggered a
lawsuit from the timber industry, which argued succesfully that
open-government laws had been violated.
timber industry also held that the Westside committee had
deliberately excluded scientists who disagreed with its approach.
Thomas himself had authorized the shredding of informal memos that
circulated among the scientists - destroying the record of internal
The Eastside Project, which got under
way in January, works in the glare of public scrutiny, accessible
to just about anybody who strolls into the headquarters, an
unassuming brick building in the tidy college town of Walla
Public briefings that last three days are
held monthly, under the "Be courteous' sign. Draft reports from the
various Eastside teams have been promised to the public before they
are peer-reviewed; independent scientists can be nominated to
review the Eastside work (a special board will evaluate the
nominations). Computer hookups to the data base that's being
compiled are available to any interested
Finding all the
Open government is hard to argue with, but
the scope of the Eastside Project is so all-inclusive and its
bureaucracy already so complex, only the most dedicated citizens
will have the stamina to stay involved. You need a flow chart just
to begin figuring out how this is all supposed to
Every planning decision will flow out of
the resource assessment being prepared by hundreds of scientists
throughout the region.
It's no less than a
comprehensive inventory of natural processes, plant and animal
communities and social and economic systems throughout the interior
basin. It will cover everything from insects to grizzlies, from the
role of fire to the invasion of exotic species, from the plight of
timber communities to the needs of ethnic groups such as
Top-notch Forest Service scientists
who specialize in pure research, such as aquatic ecologist Jim
Sedell, wildlife population specialist Bruce Marcot and landscape
ecologist Mark Jensen, have been recruited to lead the biological
assessments. The researchers are widely respected and are not
expected to pull their punches.
integration team" includes economists and social scientists who
will put the human face on ecosystem management. Eastside
communities tend to depend on exploitation of natural resources
that are diminishing or being ruled off limits, and the experts
will evaluate how they can diversify their
"There are no clear
rules," says Jeff Blackwood, Project leader. "The communities are
very different. Bend (Ore.) is very oriented toward recreation.
John Day (Ore.) is natural-resource dependent. One of the measures
of success we would like to see is that the principles of ecosystem
management are not a surprise - to the public or to our own
Lately the Eastside Project is
getting a little more public attention. Far-flung regional forest
activists converge on Walla Walla each month for the Project
briefings. They pay their own way and car-pool, driving four or
five hours one-way.
Since February, Tonia Wolf,
a graphic artist and llama raiser, has been consumed by what goes
on in Walla Walla, a five-hour drive from her home in Prineville,
Commuting several times a month, Wolf has
been sitting in on the meetings with scientists, as the point
person for 150 environmental groups and a dozen or so tribes.
Twice a month she sends a 10-page newsletter to
the 300 people on her list. It's called Eastside Update: Grassroots
Participation in the Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, and
Wolf says each issue condenses 30 pages of notes. But the
foundation-supported update isn't a newspaper, she points out, as
readers told her they want more of a running account - a dialogue -
so they get a feel for the proceedings.
she and other activists have been impressed by the scientists
involved in the Eastside process. There seem to be people of
integrity in the agency who are not constrained, she says. "But I
hope the fires (and the push for salvage logging) won't skew what
Wolf says the timber industry
"should be afraid of science; (conservationists) have faith in what
they'll find. We know how bad it is for watersheds."
The timber industry is certainly positioned to
influence the process. Boise Cascade Corp., which depends on
federal lands for 42 percent of its timber supply, has rented
offices in the same building that houses the Project's
headquarters. The Boise-based timber giant has assigned two
regional managers and also hired the engineering firm CH2M-Hill to
bird-dog every step of the process.
corporation's hired guns will evaluate the Project's research as it
comes together and recommend avenues of peer
Boise Cascade assistant timber manager
Tom Goodall says the industry wanted to "sit in on the scientific
deliberations, but the scientists were not comfortable with that.
We've tried to be constructive and objective. We're not here to
harass. We're here to be involved. We're interested in the
long-term flow of resources. The scientific process is a big part
Boise Cascade and other timber
companies that do business in the Intermountain West hope the
scientific review will lead to an easing of restrictions on timber
sales. "We think the screens were a response to a threatened
lawsuit and weren't really scientifically based," Goodall
Goodall declined to reveal how much was
being spent on monitoring the Project.
The same old cynicism
Project's research scientists will establish the data base and do
some evaluation of the effects of different management actions on
species, ecosystems and rural economies. But the research
scientists will make no policy recommendations. That will be left
to teams with management experience, who are attempting two of the
most sweeping environmental impact statements
The team headquartered in Walla Walla will
write the EIS covering all BLM and Forest Service lands in eastern
Oregon and eastern Washington. A second, newly formed team, based
in Boise, will develop an EIS for federal land in the Upper Basin
(Idaho, western Montana and portions of the other basin
Both statements are supposed to be out
in draft form by the end of next year, and the entire process is to
be completed and any recommendations adopted as federal policy
sometime in 1996.
Because the EIS teams are
accustomed to balancing pure science against the needs and wants of
forest users, and especially because final policy will be decided
by the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior in Washington, D.C.,
the entire effort is vulnerable to the same old
Wolf says that environmentalists
expect the Project will lead to a reduction in the timber harvest,
along with some restrictions on grazing, mining and road-building
in the region's forests.
She says, "We expect
the scientists will support the independent research" done
recently, which shows the forests are in decline. "But whether the
policy ends up based on ecology or economics, we have no way of
knowing. I think they'll have a lawsuit no matter what they come
out with, from whichever side (the industries or environmentalists)
The policy must come from reputable
biological data, not politics or abstract social science concepts,
says Neil Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If
you treat it all as a bunch of uncertainties and value-driven
analyses, you have a recipe for continued failed management."
Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies
has no doubt that the Upper Basin EIS will be politically driven
and will call for more logging in the roadless areas of Idaho and
Montana national forests, possibly through exemptions from the
National Environmental Policy Act.
skepticism was fueled by the appointment of Steve Mealey,
superintendent of the Boise National Forest, to head the team that
will prepare the Upper Basin EIS. Bader and other environmentalists
castigate Mealey as "the butcher of the Boise" for his role in
overseeing the nation's most extensive timber-salvage program over
the past three years. Many of the sales were in roadless areas, yet
Mealey exempted them from detailed environmental analysis. Bader
says that while Mealey served as a district ranger on the Shoshone
National Forest, he planned "huge clearcuts in grizzly habitat."
Indian tribes have also expressed doubt about
the effect of politics. As sovereign nations, the tribes deal
formally with any U.S. administration, government-to-government.
Yet the Clinton administration has made no attempt to consult with
tribes, says Rick George, who oversees environmental planning and
protection of treaty rights for the Confederated Tribes of the
George says that previous meetings of
tribal and Project staff members have fallen short of formal
consultation. He says the Project has sought detailed information
from the tribes, prying into natural resource inventories and
economic and social issues, without providing funding to help the
tribes gather the information or flexibility on
The Umatilla tribes' biggest concern
is whether the Forest Service and the Clinton administration have
the will to protect the basin's battered ecosystems when that may
require standing up to timber and grazing interests. Past rhetoric
from the government hasn't turned around the decline of
The very scope of the Project could make
it irrelevant, says Rick Brown, of the National Wildlife
Federation. Despite the government's huge commitment, Brown says,
the EISes have to cover so much territory, they may come out too
general and provide weak direction to on-the-ground
At the public briefing last month, in
which so many questions were raised, it was obvious that Project
leaders are feeling their way through the invention of ecosystem
management, struggling to make the abstract
From technical to
There were few answers to be had.
Presentations ranged from technical discussions to an
hour-and-a-half slide show by historian Stephen Dow Beckham, who
traced the region's geologic origins and the various impacts of
human settlement. Beckham spun a tale of fire-setting by Native
Americans, the coming of the railroads and cattle, the gold
John Steffenson, who oversees the
sophisticated computer-assisted mapping that is integral to the
Project, offered a candid assessment of it all. In an interview,
Steffenson said the inevitability of fundamental change hasn't yet
sunk in even with forest managers. "There is still a perception
that once the process is over, they'll go back to business as
But Steffenson, who also directed
mapping for the Westside effort, believes that this time, with no
spotted owl calling the shots, the government has the opportunity
to do things right. "Everything on the Westside was species driven.
Here it's really ecosystem-based - we're finally responding to what
the public wants and expects." n
Kathie Durbin free-lances in Portland, Oregon.
Her stories were paid for by the High Country News Research
To track the process: To reach Jeff
Blackwood, project manager for the Eastside Ecosystem Management
Project, call 800/599-8926 or write to the office at 112 E. Poplar,
Walla Walla, WA 99362.
To reach Steve Mealey,
project manager for the Upper Columbia River Basin, call
208/334-1770 or write the office at 304 N. Eighth St. Room 246,
Boise, ID 83702.
Activist Tonia Wolf publishes
Eastside Updates, frequent reports of meetings and decisions. To
get on the mailing list, call her in Oregon at 503/447-3946, or in
Walla Walla, Wash., at 509/525-4725. Write to her at 281451 Mill
Creek Road, Prineville, OR 97754.