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 officials.


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 account?





"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."


The 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 tribal reservations.


While the Project struggles to define itself, the inland region is in a biological and political emergency.


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."


* Eastside forests have been severely weakened by drought, fire suppression, insect infestations and excessive logging of healthy ponderosa pine.


* 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 hydropower.


* Tribal rights to the Columbia fishery may yet be decided in court.


* Two major open-pit gold mines have been proposed in the region.


* People are having to give ground so that wolves, grizzly bears and woodland caribou can roam free.


* 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' should follow.


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.





No shredding on the Eastside


The pioneer Westside planning effort was run very differently.


The 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.


The 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 debate.


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 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 citizen.





Finding all the parts


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 work.


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 Hispanics.


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.


This "scientific 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 economies.





"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 workforce."





Bird-dogging the process


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, Ore.


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.


So far, 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 they're doing."


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.


The corporation's hired guns will evaluate the Project's research as it comes together and recommend avenues of peer review.


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 of that."


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 says.


Goodall declined to reveal how much was being spent on monitoring the Project.





The same old cynicism


The 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 ever.


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 states).


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 cynicism.


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) loses."


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.


Bader's 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 Umatilla.


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 deadlines.


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 salmon.


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 managers.


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 concrete.





From technical to historical


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 rush.


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 usual."


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 Fund.


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.