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Taking action to restore the Blue Mountains

Posted by Renee Magyar on January 20, 2016

A dedicated team aims to rapidly restore forest health on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

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Across the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and Washington, more than 2.3 million acres of dry forests have become overcrowded and vulnerable to unusual outbreaks of insects, diseases, and wildfires. The current pace of active forest restoration, with thinning and prescribed burning, is not keeping pace with forest growth. Every year we fall farther behind. Forests have become denser, ladder fuels have increased, and the abundance of fire-tolerant tree species have declined. Climate trends are leading to extended late season drought and longer wildfire seasons – and the forests are losing against these conditions. The 2015 fire season set the record as the worst in U.S. history. Large and severe wildfires threaten human lives, property, and high value natural resources.

How do we change this devastating trend? The Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project is an effort to rapidly restore more than a half million acres of forests on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. For perspective, this project is more than ten times the average size of current forest restoration projects. Where current forest project planning can take several years to complete, this project aims to complete the process in just over one year. Planning at this pace and scale requires innovative approaches to project design and analysis, testing ways to reach National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decisions differently, and working closely with tribes, communities, and forest collaborative groups.  

The Forest Resiliency Project will design fuel treatments at the landscape scale to return the Blue Mountains to healthier conditions, reduce the risks of unusually large and severe wildfires, and reintroduce the natural role of fire to the landscape. The Forest Resiliency project will also contribute to local communities through increased jobs and supplemental benefits. After all, healthy forests support healthy communities.

Because the threats to the Blue Mountains National Forests extend beyond forest boundaries, the success of this project depends on frequent collaboration among a variety of interested stakeholders and communities. The fact that three local collaborative groups are active within the project area (the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative, the Umatilla Forest Collaborative, and the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Collaborative) demonstrates the strong collective will to do what’s right, on the ground, for the forests and the adjacent communities. Participants from local collaboratives provided comments and ideas about potential projects for the planning team in 2013. This input helped the Forest Service decide which projects to advance, including the Forest Resiliency Project. The collaboratives continue to engage with the Forest Service to integrate social values and address any local concerns about Forest Service project plans.  

The Forest Resiliency Project is part of a larger effort called the Eastside Restoration Strategy. Spurred by USDA Secretary Vilsack and the Forest Service Chief, the Regional Forester for the Pacific Northwest Region initiated a restoration needs assessment in 2013, which revealed the urgency for active management in the Blue Mountains. The Eastside Restoration Strategy was established to address this issue. The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team is part of this charter and is a dedicated interdisciplinary project planning team tasked with completing large landscape restoration plans including the Forest Resiliency Project. 

The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy is not the only effort in the Blue Mountains to actively address restoration need. The Malheur National Forest is piloting a complementary effort to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration. The Malheur has a significant investment in accelerated restoration, success working locally with two collaborative groups and an ongoing ten year stewardship project. The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team will support these ongoing efforts by providing scientific analyses and tools to the staff and leadership of the Malheur National Forest. Together, these two efforts will make a difference on the landscape and provide important lessons learned to the region and nation. 

In the face of a changing climate, the time is now to do things at a greater pace and scale. The Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project is taking an innovative approach to forest restoration that aims to create future forests that are more resilient to the effects of climate change, like severe wildfire, insect epidemics, and tree disease. This approach is a first step, and we must continue to take greater action to restore our landscapes, increase fire’s beneficial effects, and reduce the exposure of homes and sensitive habitats to the unwanted effects of severe wildfires. 

This is the first of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series will highlight the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and will include updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.