Columbia Basin plan staggers home

  • The areas of the Columbia Basin with the highest ecological integrity

    Diane Sylvain
  • Heart Lake in the Mallard-Larkins roadless area in Idaho

    Craig Gehrke

It was heralded as the flagship of an effort to launch ecosystem management in the interior Northwest, an unprecedented attempt to knit together the needs of people and nature. So far, the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project has languished for three years and cost taxpayers $40 million, with few tangible results.

The first draft of a strategy for 75 million acres of public land - a tremendous swath of forests, waters and rangelands stretching from the crest of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon to the Continental Divide in Idaho and Montana - is a year overdue.

Though the project team's scientific findings were released in December (see story at right), an eight-member executive steering committee is still struggling to reach agreement. Project officials estimate that two draft environmental impact statements, each including seven optional strategies, won't be released until mid-June.

Though the project's tardiness disappoints many, the fact that it is still alive is remarkable. Last year, Western Republicans sought to scrap the whole plan, claiming it was a waste of money and would hurt local communities by further restricting grazing, mining and timber harvesting. They tried to delete the project's funding last spring, but conservationists and some county officials fought them off.

Now, with the re-election of Bill Clinton and the appointment of Mike Dombeck - a firm believer in ecosystem management - as the new chief of the Forest Service, the project seems back on track. But the politics remain sticky. Industry, local governments and conservation groups have already started to criticize early drafts of the plans, and looming ahead is the spectre of a litigation snarl such as the one that occurred over spotted owl turf on public lands west of the Cascades.

All things to all people

The Interior Columbia Basin study is tackling a bundle of complex issues. Federal officials, with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in charge, hope to halt environmental damage in national forests, high desert grasslands, lakes and rivers; rebuild fish habitat and restore endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout; and solve forest insect and disease problems. They want to do all this with minimal economic and social disruption of the rural communities that surround the public lands (HCN, 9/19/94).

Environmentalists and Indian tribes want the study to validate their concerns about how logging, mining, grazing, road-building and other development have harmed the land, watersheds and fish. They say protecting the remaining roadless areas is essential to maintaining the ecological and economic health of the region. Timber industry officials want the study to confirm their concerns about sick forests, the risk of catastrophic fire and the need to aggressively log forests back to health. County commissioners want the study to recognize social and economic needs - i.e., jobs - in mountain communities.

"This is a big job," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "I think science is a wonderful tool, and for the BLM and the Forest Service to try to create a better foundation for their management activities is a good thing. But politicians rarely want good science. They want something to validate the status quo.

"Either we'll get a wimpy document," says Wilson, "or we'll get something strong, and the politicians will cremate it."

The pressures are intense. Last November, a four-state coalition of county governments wrote a strongly worded letter to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, expressing the fear that the study team was bending to pressure from federal biologists who want to restrict grazing and logging near waterways. Arleigh Isley, a county commissioner from Wallowa County in eastern Oregon, said the counties worry that such "short-term aquatic strategies have no place for people and will undermine long-term ecosystem needs to all resources and people."

The timber industry's early reading of the plan showed that "neither draft displays a clear understanding of the economic impacts of declining federal harvest levels, or the economic opportunities inherent in a large-scale forest restoration strategy," wrote Tom Goodall, northeast Oregon timberlands manager for Boise Cascade Corp., in the September/October issue of Evergreen magazine.

Goodall and Boise Cascade want the Columbia Basin study to resolve some of the timber and fish issues that have caused political gridlock in the Northwest, and in some cases, led to the closure of sawmills in places such as Joseph, Ore., and Council, Idaho.

Who's on first?

A leadership vacuum compounds the uncertainty over the plan. The two men who oversaw the project for two and a half years are leaving: Jeff Blackwood, the team leader in Walla Walla, will soon return to his job as supervisor of the Umatilla National Forest, and Steve Mealey, team leader in Boise, has taken a job as director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The political will at the national level is also a question mark. The release of the EISes has been delayed several times; observers speculate that senior staff members in the agencies and the White House have been unable to agree on a course palatable to both environmentalists and industry.

Pat Ford of the Northern Rockies Campaign, a consortium of 15 conservation and sportsmen groups in Idaho, says the final plans will inevitably be constrained by politics. That includes not only the reaction of interest groups and Congress, he says, "but the timidity of the Clinton administration and the chaos within the agencies themselves."

Project leader Blackwood says the draft plans will be heavy on objectives and light on standards. On certain issues that cut across the region - such as the management of exotic weeds and migratory salmon - the plans will be prescriptive, he says. "But we want to leave some flexibility at the ground level."

The EISes will not replace the 74 management plans now in place in the Columbia Basin, says Blackwood, but will force the public-land agencies to revise or redo their plans over a period of several years to make them consistent with the regional plans. Says Blackwood, "Planning is kind of a never-ending process."

Despite the delays and the political uncertainties, Martha Hahn, steering committee chair and the Idaho director of the Bureau of Land Management, says she is optimistic about the study's results.

"I look back and remember that I started out working for the BLM in 1983 on Glen Canyon Dam studies, and here they are finally signing a record of decision on that issue in 1996," Hahn says. "So put in that perspective, we're moving at light speed."

For more information, contact the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project at 509/522-4030.

Steve Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story: "The report is readable - and grim"

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