Landscape-scale problems require landscape-scale solutions

Posted by Renee Magyar on February 17, 2016

Planning team develops new analysis process as a pilot method for restoring landscape forest health

Collaborative forest restoration group tours a restoration project in the Blue Mountains. Photo by U.S. Forest Service

When more than 2.3 million acres out of 6 million acres are in need of active restoration across the Blue Mountains, we have a huge problem. Traditional planning efforts are not keeping pace with forest growth. If we want to promote a healthy and productive forest, we must try to do planning differently, at a larger scale and faster pace.

That is exactly what the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team has been tasked with: working at a large landscape scale, exploring and developing new methods for planning and analysis, and working with interested tribes, agencies, local governments, and public groups, all aimed at increasing forest restoration efforts in the Blue Mountains.

The Forest Resiliency Project is the Forest Service’s attempt to tackle this critical issue. This project was intentionally designed at a large scale, analyzing 1.2 million acres on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. The team is working with interested stakeholders to understand a variety of issues and concerns. The timeline for planning this large project is just over one year. 

When we think about the level of detail, site specificity, and time that goes into traditional project planning, this project clearly cannot operate under the same format. And we wouldn’t want it to. This project is an experiment that tests what is needed for a Forest managerto make an informed decision, using the best available science and modeling methods to inform a large landscape scale analysis. 

So how does one go about something like this? The planning team began with an all lands broadscale assessment across the 6 million acres in the Blue Mountains ecoregion. This assessment integrated three focus areas that are critical to forest resiliency (forest restoration needs, wildland fire risk, and climate change). This cohesive view helped the team determine where forested lands have the greatest restoration need, based on a scientific understanding of current conditions compared to desired conditions.

The team used this information to identify priority treatment areas across the three national forests, concentrating on areas where thinning and managed fire could contribute the most to restoring forest health. Creating a more resilient pattern on the landscape also allows fire to have a more natural role, while reducing the risk of large and severe wildfires. The treatment areas were selected at a watershed level (ranging anywhere from 45,000 to 200,000 acres) to create landscape forest patterns more resilient to wildfire, insects, and diseases, while also providing safe and effective fire management opportunities. This watershed level analysis can also be used during implementation as a foundation for adjustments on the ground to achieve desired conditions.

The next step for the team is to determine potential treatment locations within the project areas. Potential treatments may include one or more of the following activities: thinning with managed fire, removing major portions of a stand to create an opening, or managed fire only. Proposed treatment locations will consider natural landscape patterns, high value resources, and climate change projections.

Blue Mountains potential treatment areas
Blue Mountains potential treatment areas

While the analysis is being done under one Environmental Impact Statement, separate Records of Decisions will be prepared for each forest and signed by the respective Forest Supervisor. The decisions will be different from what we are used to now, in terms of scope and scale. The team is trying new methods to plan projects faster (for example: moving some field surveys from the planning phase to the implementation phase; and mitigating adverse effects to heritage resources through a Programmatic Agreement with Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and interested tribes). The decisions are intended to be implementable, but flexible enough to allow site specific adjustments to field prescriptions. The flexibility during implementation is designed to ensure treatments incorporate the most up-to-date local information.

Will this method for project planning work? We don’t know. But we can’t make a difference in restoring forest health if we don’t try new approaches to solve the problem.

Interested in finding out more on this project? The Proposed Action and treatment area maps are available on the project website.  The scoping period began on February 5, 2016 and comments on this project are being received for 60 days from that date. 

This is the second 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.