New plan draws hisses, boos

  • The Columbia Basin

    Diane Sylvain

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?

That's the 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 short).

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 Wyoming.

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, 2/3/97).

"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 work.

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 standards.

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.

Cattle grazing 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 restoration.

"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 says.

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 draft plan.

"I once was a supporter. I now am very, very, very skeptical about this project," Craig told AP.

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 Portland, Oregon.

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