You can mark the formation of the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Group rather simply: it started with a walk in the woods.
Nothing about what preceded this walk in the woods is simple (of course). The backdrop of the collaborative efforts between the government, logging interests and environmental groups is one marked by outrage, lawsuits and years of legal battles.
On a map, the Umatilla National Forest is an odd looking creature – straddling two states and seven counties – in three large chunks. Nestled in northeast Oregon and Southwest Washington, its communities are flung out hundreds of miles apart. The Blue Mountains make up its crooked spine and two other National Forests, the Malheur and the Wallowa Whitman, stretch out to meet its borders.
The various people and groups well-connected with the Umatilla are scattered in all directions. Thus gathering all of these folks together in a meeting is, as one former participant described it, a feat that required setting up new systems just for mileage reimbursement. In addition, the Umatilla – like many of the forests in Oregon and its fellow Blue Mountain federal forests – faces a set of complex and intertwined threats from insect outbreaks and disease epidemics. The forest has also seen more intense and frequent wildfires in the last century. These factors have caused much of the forestland in the dry, Northeast corner of Oregon to grow unnaturally dense and unhealthy and put it at an increased risk to severe wildfire.
More Than Just an Average Walk in the Woods
In July of 2011, the US Forest Service sponsored a Listening Tour about the Umatilla National Forest with public, private and nonprofit stakeholders. As the diverse group walked and talked in the woods, a critical mass of those in attendance made the decision to move beyond the decades of enormous conflict. In unison, they elected to form a standing collaborative group to engage on vegetation management practices on the Umatilla National Forest.
The immediate goals of the group were to tackle just one project that could demonstrate commercial production outcomes for local lumber mills, preserve habitat and water quality and reduce the threats of devastating fires. As an Oregon Solutions project, the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Group (UFCG) would work to identify projects, and craft a restoration planning project proposal and an implementation plan for the Kahler and later Thomas Creek restoration projects. The group would also provide input to the Forest Service for consideration on project development.
A Unifying Desire to Keep the Woodlands Alive
From 2011-2012, the UFCG focused on selecting two projects in specific parts of the Umatilla Forest. The dry forest Kahler Basin project in the Kahler Creek basin in Wheeler and Grant counties (40 miles southwest of the town of Heppner, Oregon) included a combination of treatments, such as thinning and prescribed burns. The cool/moist forest project was later identified as the Thomas Creek project in Union County, about six miles northwest of Elgin, Oregon.
Together, the Umatilla Collaborative Group established an implementation plan for the 30,000-acre Kahler forest restoration project, built on capacity of the local watershed council, raised funding to keep the collaborative moving forward and developed a roadmap for identifying a second project on cool/moist forest restoration. Throughout 2014 and 2015 the UFCG continued to work with Oregon Solutions to overcome obstacles, such as historical distrust among stakeholders and addressing the lack of clear science on how to treat the cool/moist Umatilla National Forest.
In the fall of 2016, the Kahler project (first on-going initiative in years for the Umatilla Forest) was finally underway and, through a combination of treatments, began producing a mix of commercial and noncommercial forest products. The sale of these products created both economic and ecological benefits to the communities around the Umatilla, funding both the local timber mills and resource improvement projects on the land following the timber harvest.
In addition, the group provided collaborative recommendations for the Forest Service’s consideration during identification of the cool/moist forest initiative, the Thomas Creek Restoration Project. This project was intended to be a small-scale experiment to develop agreements between stakeholders for treating old clearcuts in a cool/moist forest with monitoring of the implementation to see how those treatments work – combined, there are over 8,000 acres of forest land that will be under commercial management or commercial treatment. The lessons learned from the Thomas Creek project will be applied to future Umatilla work on a larger scale.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
For both the Kahler and Thomas Creek Restoration projects, the UFCG came to consensus on guidelines for the Forest Service to aim for in working towards decisions on implementation. As of fall 2016, commercial activity involving both projects is either just beginning or will be in the near future. The first sale from the Kahler project, the Strawberry Timber Sale, was auctioned in September 2016. It contained a volume of 3.1 million board feet. The Forest Service is planning the second sale, the Henry Timber Sale, for late fall of 2016. For the region’s economy, maintaining those timber mills is crucial, and both projects will help to build shelf stock that will help carry the mills through the next year or so.
There are presently more than 20 other local forest collaboratives like the UFCG working with communities and the 10 other National Forests in Oregon. Most of these have formed over the past few years. The needs of each of these forest collaboratives are different, based on their geography, the type of forest and the members themselves. Regardless, it is remarkable to see the high level of local community engagement in each of these collaborations.
From 2013 until 2015, after recognizing the widespread desire to collaborate on Federal forest management and to better support local collaboration and accelerate forest restoration efforts, the Oregon Legislature took the unprecedented step of creating a Federal Forest Health Program. Their initial investment was $2.88 million. For 2015 through 2017, the Legislature increased the program’s funding to $5 million and expanded it statewide.
Now, as the UFCG moves through and past the completion of its first two projects, the group has recognized the need for ongoing and consistent facilitation to continue moving in a forward projection. The collaborative is currently in the process of hiring a new facilitator, working towards a new project area to study and cultivating a better understanding the moist forests on a landscape scale.
Yet most importantly, the UFCG continues to walk in the woods together. There they recount their stories, weaving together the history and future potential of the forest of the Umatilla.