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A new year…the same challenge: restoring the Blue Mountains

Posted by Renee Magyar on January 19, 2017

Dedicated team aims to restore forest health on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests

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Happy New Year! Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team are pleased to continue our partnership for the Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy.

This series of articles highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project. So what did you miss in 2016? Let us introduce you to the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy.

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. Large and severe wildfires threaten human lives, property, and high value natural resources.

How do we change this trend and create future forests that are more resilient to changing climate conditions? The Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project is an effort to restore more than a half million acres of forests on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests years. This 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. Planning at this pace and scale requires innovative approaches to project design and analysis, working closely with tribes, communities, and other interested stakeholders, and testing ways to reach National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decisions more efficiently so that forest managers can focus efforts on implementing restoration activities instead of planning for them. The planning team is attempting to create NEPA efficiencies by testing what is needed for a forest manager to make an informed decision. 

Stakeholders discuss restoration treatments and methods for reducing wildfire risk on a field tour of the Ochoco National Forest
Stakeholders discuss restoration treatments and methods for reducing wildfire risk on a field tour of the Ochoco National Forest

By reducing stand density across large landscapes (thinning the number of trees on an acre), adjusting species composition (altering which species of trees and other vegetation grow on a site), and creating more natural forest patterns, we can promote a more resilient forest ecosystem that will benefit a variety of species that use the forests as their homes (including the species featured in the June 2016 and October 2016 blog posts). The Forest Resiliency project will also contribute to local communities through increased jobs and supplemental benefits. After all, healthy forests support healthy communities.

Post restoration treatment on the Ochoco National Forest. Photo by U.S. Forest Service
Post restoration treatment on the Ochoco National Forest. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

How did this effort get started? The Forest Resiliency Project is part of a larger effort called the Eastside Restoration Strategy. Spurred by the former Secretary of Agriculture 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. 

While the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team is attempting to create NEPA efficiencies with the Forest Resiliency Project, this is not the only effort in the northwest actively addressing the restoration need. In fact, there are a variety of restoration efforts taking place across the Pacific Northwest region of the Forest Service. Some forest managers are making conscious choices to increase the size of their restoration planning areas or are trying new approaches to accelerate project planning by completing fewer, but larger, project plans.

A fire crew member watches over a small wildfire in the Blue Mountains. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.
A fire crew member watches over a small wildfire in the Blue Mountains. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

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. 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. 

We hope you have enjoyed the Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy. With a new year upon us, be sure to follow our series to read more about the complexities of forest management in the Blue Mountains region. Stay tuned for a look at landscape features like mollisols, how insects and disease relate to forest health, information on the upcoming Forest Resiliency Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and more! 

This article series Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy is brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team.