Objections heard at Colville National Forest Plan meetings

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

Looking west at sunrise from the Salmo Mountain fire tower. This is Gypsy ridge. Salmo-Priest Wilderness. (Colville National Forest photo)

NEW FOREST PLAN: Leaders hope for more simplified plan…

A federal forest plan isn’t light reading by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the topic of discussion two weeks ago at SCC-Colville as the Colville National Forest held objection meetings for people with specific concerns about the new plan draft the federal agency had put forth in late 2018. Written objections already had to be submitted to the Forest Service in order to have a voice at the three-day, multi-meeting process.

The Colville National Forest Plan received significantly less objections than other new forest plans. After a 60-day period, the new plan, updating one from the 1980s, had about 20 objections. This pales in comparison to the forest plans for the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national Forests Plans which saw over 300 objections from a wide variety of individuals and organizations, reported the Spokesman-Review and Lewiston Tribune, resulting in the withdrawal of those plans. While there were different viewpoints, it appears groups attending the objection meetings in Colville left feeling like they had a path forward working with the Forest Service.

Local groups like the Stevens and Ferry County Commissioners and cattlemen groups were particularly concerned about an expansion of wilderness within the Forest. This was also a concern for conservation groups as they were expecting about 200,000 acres to be declared wilderness, only to see about 60,000 get the designation in the November 2018 released plan.

Stevens County Commissioners have been engaging the public for several months, and even years, during this new forest plan process, even holding open forums for the public to give their opinions on the matter. For Stevens County Commissioner Steve Parker, he felt that this is a forest plan that they can work with moving forward, adding that he felt like the approach was balanced and the Forest Service staff is willing to work with groups of local governments moving forward. This was an opinion shared by some conservation groups as well.

“Everyone was fairly polite in true Northwest style,” Northeast Washington Forest Coalition representative Tiana Luke said. “On topics where objections brought suggestions for specific detailed changes, we had satisfactory progress toward outcomes.”

Parker maintained that expanding large amounts of wilderness would not benefit Stevens County and the people that live inside county lines. A wilderness designation would mean less access for people wishing to recreate in the area with motor vehicles along with less management and overall human interaction with a piece of land. Conservation groups felt that the 68,000 acres of wilderness was too small a number and that the Colville National forest has much more quality wilderness land.

The reviewing official pointed out to groups with objections to wildernesses that this has been an issue for the CNF for over 15 years, perhaps even 40 years for some people, and it’s unlikely that everything will be solved in one day.

“By the last day, it seemed that things were going more smoothly, and we even made progress on some wording changes for wilderness recommendations that all can agree on,” Luke said. “These wording changes are to give the grazing community assurances that grazing can continue in wilderness. While the Wilderness Act allows for existing uses to continue – like grazing – some were concerned that it wouldn’t.”
Grazing was an important issue for cattle groups, who were worried regulations would clamp down on cattlemen’s ability to allow their cattle to graze.

“We had concern that grazing would not be (was not) recognized as the valuable tool that it is,” Sarah Ryan, vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association said. “Grazing adds value to the local economy, reduces fuel load to aid in preventing catastrophic wildfires, reduces weeds – grazers provide weed control, improve wildlife habitat, and generally improve the forest. USFS should add/strengthen wording related to support of grazing on the national forest in the Record of Decision.”

Ryan said it was interesting to see where each party, person or organization was coming from when it came to objections. While there is plenty of uncertainty until the final plan comes out, there were positive signs.

“There was certainly a few areas where a balance could be found among the various interest groups – like preserving grazing and tools for grazers in proposed wilderness – and here are also areas where it will be tough for USFS to balance the various interests, and those remain areas of concern like grazing in areas with wolves,” Ryan added.

The wolf situation was one where cattle groups and commissioners felt like it would be impossible to manage cattle away from wolves, since wolves are attracted to prey like cattle. They felt that conservation groups proposals such as grazing cattle away from wolves wouldn’t work.
It appeared to an Independent reporter who attended the wildlife session and Commissioner Parker that the U.S. Forest Service will be deferring wolf management to the state as they are the ones that deal with the predator issues.

Luke of the NE Washington Forest Coalition said they were optimistic about their aquatic desired conditions, old-growth standards and the “21 rule” heard by the Forest Service, and some misconceptions concerning timber volume calculations were cleared up. Also, that an allowable sale quantity for the forest was not a cap.

“While it’s not a normal convention for this to happen, wilderness discussions will continue in the Tri-County Group meetings at the end of the month,” Luke said. “I’ve hopeful that we’ll come to some sort of agreement.”

There were some issues concerning how the Colville National Forest had formatted the meetings and conveyed them to parties involved. Parker said that they were given about a week notice about the content of the meetings. Luke said her group was concerned it would just be a simple restating of no objections with no solutions reached or offered.

“Overall, the meetings remained respectful and each objector and interested party was able to participate and offer their objections and resolutions,” Ryan said. “The USFS staff did a nice job of facilitating and asking clarifying questions.”

The WCA felt the USFS tried hard to balance all interests and input received, while Luke felt hopeful for some progress made in terms of how the forest is managed and how restoring the forest to its historical condition will allow it to better weather climate change. Parker is hopeful that parties can simply and streamline the plan to make it easier for people to navigate.

It’s now a wait and see process for people, but Parker encouraged those who have a specific interest in the forest for a variety of reasons to become engaged in the process for their cause or concern.

“This forest is important to the county,” Parker said.

The Colville National Forest consists of 1.1 million acres.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Independent also attempted to contact the Colville National Forest and the Stevens County Cattlemen for this story. We realize the Forest Plan is extremely detail-oriented and couldn’t possibly cover every aspect or concern in one article. If you have something you’d like to see us talk about, write a Letter to the Editor or contact us!