Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Columbia Basin plan staggers home."
Though politics may delay and water down the final plans of the Interior Columbia Basin Management Project, the science documenting the condition of the basin is strong and available.
In late December, the scientists working on the project released Status of the Interior Columbia Basin: Summary of Scientific Findings, described by its writers as a readable synopsis of the region's current ecological, social and economic conditions.
Illustrated by charts, maps and color photographs, the 144-page report depicts a landscape that has been dramatically altered by human settlement over the past 150 years. Among the findings:
* More than half of the national forests, rangelands and rivers in the Northwest - with the exception of wilderness areas, parks and remote canyon lands - are badly wounded from an ecological perspective.
* Major river systems are choked with sediment, harming fish habitat and killing fish.
* 128,000 miles of dirt and gravel roads traverse the region, serving as conduits for sediment-laced runoff and exotic plants.
* Highly effective fire-suppression efforts have snuffed out the historically cyclical influence of wildfire, creating in many places a tinderbox ready to explode.
* Noxious weeds and non-native grasses, spread by roads and cattle grazing, have smothered millions of acres of rangelands.
Though it stops short of specific suggestions, the report's conclusion favors "aggressively restoring ecosystem health through actively managing resources." Without such decisive action, habitat for endangered species will decline, noxious weeds will spread farther, and intense forest fires will increase, it says.
Conservationists say they are disappointed by the report's lack of specific recommendations, but pleased with its thrust. "It confirms what we've been saying," says Pat Ford of the Northern Rockies Campaign. "The healthiest areas in terms of ecological integrity are the wilderness areas and the millions of acres of surrounding roadless lands."
Ford, who is based in Boise, Idaho, says he is also pleased the scientific team concluded that the economic health of the region depends on the ecological health of the forests and rangelands.
"There's no doubt that some communities are dependent on logging," says Ford. "But overall it is the quality of life that drives the region's economics. That is the basis for the recreation and tourism industries and the reason many new businesses want to locate here."
For a free copy of the report, write the Pacific Northwest Research Station, 333 SW First Ave., P.O. Box 3890, Portland, OR 97208-3890, or call the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project at 509/522-4030.