Ecosystem management hits 'Ice Bump' in the road

  • Ponderosa pines in the Interior Columbia Basin's Sycan River

    Larry N. Olson photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Other regions, such as the Sierra Nevada and the interior Columbia Basin, have attempted to develop ecosystem management plans. In the interior Columbia Basin, the attempt is not going well.

The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (the initials ICBEMP inevitably became "Ice-bump') is vastly more ambitious than the forest plan for the wet westside of the Cascades. The Interior Columbia Project covers 72 million acres of public lands in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada. The planning area is huge, covering 32 national forests - one-quarter of the Forest Service's entire domain - and 16 BLM districts.

Where the Forest Plan dealt with one forest type and with logging, ICBEMP deals with several forest types and wades into grazing and mining.

Forests remain at the center of the study: Fire suppression has increased fuel loads in the forests; native old-growth ponderosa pine forests and dependent species have been shrunk by logging; clear-cut logging, with help from dams, has caused large declines in salmon and trout; and the weakened, fire-deprived forests are under siege by insects and disease.

The complexity of the effort is reflected in cost and duration. An initial projected cost of $16 million has almost tripled. And where the Northwest Forest Plan was crafted in just 90 days, the Interior Columbia Project has been in process since July 1993. Unlike the Forest Plan's two-day regional conference, the ICBEMP staff has held more than 150 public meetings, two regional teleconferences, published a series of newsletters, kept in touch with a 7,500-person mailing list, and put much of their work on the project's Internet home page since June 1993.

All for naught.

Stakeholders distanced themselves from the draft environmental impact statement released in June of last year. Northwest Congressman George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and his Senate colleagues, Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, added riders to the Interior appropriation bills to kill ICBEMP.

A similar attempt failed in 1997, partly because timber companies and the county commissioners came to the plan's defense. This time, they're supporting the plan's death. It has become too prescriptive, according to Stefany Bales, communications director for the Intermountain Forest Industry. She says federal agencies are pushing "one size fits all" prescriptions that don't take into account specific local conditions; that, she says, has turned industry and local government against it.

"The science is incredibly useful," says Bales. "We'd like to see all that science kicked down to local forests. Let them decide how to use it in the Panhandle Forest," or "the Boise Forest, which is much different."

Environmentalists are loath to put the issues back in the local offices that mismanaged the forests and rangelands in the first place. They see the plan's problem as an abandonment of the scientific knowledge produced in the project's first years. Rather than having the EIS flow from the scientific work, says George Sexton of the American Lands Alliance, the scientific assessment and the draft EIS were written concurrently.

"I think it's dead on arrival," says Sexton, "because it's not scientifically credible." A 1997 internal review of the draft EIS by the Columbia project's scientists concluded that 31 of 32 of the plan's key points were inconsistent with the scientific knowledge.

The scientific analysis showed "time and again how bad roads are, yet the solution was a timber sale program that (will) increase roads in the forests," says Mike Peterson, who followed the project for the Lands Council, a Spokane-based conservation group.

The proposed plan also suffers from fear created by the Northwest Forest Plan. "We've asked how much timber we can get," says Stefany Bales, "We've never gotten a straight answer ... I think they don't know."

Large reductions in federal timber harvests on the westside created a disturbing precedent, says Mike Fish, with Weyerhaeuser's Idaho operations. "(The Forest Plan) had a much more severe impact than we thought," says Fish. Forest Plan co-author Jerry Franklin says the Columbia project has been most hurt by the protracted, elaborate process. "(It's) suffered from taking way too much time," he says.

At least one environmentalist familiar with the Forest Plan believes that ICBEMP and other efforts to craft science-based ecosystem management plans are destined to fail, in part because extractive industries have seen how heavily ecosystem management can restrict their activities.

"The Forest Plan is the best landscape-level forest plan in the world," says David Bayles with the Pacific Rivers Council. "Other places in the U.S. forest system are still wrestling with (ecosystem management) and I don't think they'll get there."

In the Interior Columbia Basin, what they will probably get instead is the kind of conflict that created gridlock on the westside prior to the Forest Plan. "I see more confusion, lawsuits, and disorder," says Mike Peterson.

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