A Forest Plan is a document that guides the overall land management direction of a National Forest for a period of about 15 to 20 years. A Forest Plan can be likened to a zoning plan that establishes the various approaches to land use on private lands. Just as the zoning of private land is critical to protecting farmland and private forests from unchecked development, the zoning of our national forests is equally important for protecting the precious natural resources they provide, and biodiversity they support. The Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revisions (BMFPR) combines three National Forests; the Wallowa-Whitman, the Umatilla, and the Malheur, into one planning process. One of the issues the BMFPR addresses is potential Wilderness. Areas that meet the inventory criteria for potential Wilderness can be recommended for Wilderness designation. They cannot, however, be designated Wilderness. Only Congress can do that. But the Forest Service can make recommendations based on their expertise and knowledge of the areas they administer.
What about Washington?The northern Blue Mountains extend into Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties of southeastern Washington State. This portion of the Umatilla National Forest includes numerous large inventoried roadless areas that meet the inventory criteria for potential Wilderness.
How was this determined?
The Forest Service released a “Wilderness Need Evaluation” in order to evaluate the need for additional Wilderness on the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests (http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/uma/blue_mtn_planrevision/documents.shtml). Some of the factors considered in this analysis and listed on page 2 of the Wilderness Need Evaluation are:
1. The location, size, and type of other wilderness areas in the general vicinity and their distance from the proposed area. Considering accessibility of areas to population centers and user groups. Public demand for wilderness may increase with proximity to growing population centers.
2. Present visitor pressure on other wilderness areas, the trends in use, changing patterns of use, population expansion factors, and trends and changes in transportation.
While only a small portion of the BMFPR analysis area is within the State of Washington, the document shows that Walla Walla County alone has 20% of the entire analysis areas total population. When Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties are added in, Washington is home to 29% of the entire population within the analysis area. It would follow that national forests close to large populations would receive more visitors. The Wilderness Need Evaluation supports this assumption on page 10:
“Within the Blue Mountains, the Umatilla National Forest is the most visited for all purposes and also contributes the highest wilderness use followed by the Wallowa-Whitman and the Malheur National Forests.”
Concerning population growth, the Wilderness Need Evaluation states that Washington State has the highest projected growth rate of any State in the project area (see page 15, Figure 8). Walla Walla and Tri-cities are growing at 3 times the national average (pg 15).
With regards to recreation demand the Wilderness Need Evaluation states on page 16 that backpacking, primitive camping, fishing, and horseback riding will increase. “Increases in wilderness visitation may be expected for relaxing, nature study, picnicking, viewing natural features, wildlife viewing, and visiting historic sites. Hiking and walking is projected to increase the most.”
In summary, not recommending any new Wilderness in Washington State runs counter to the analysis which suggests that this area should be at the top of the list for agency recommended Wilderness. Failure to recognize the clear need for recommended Wilderness in Washington could result in decades of lost time and increasing negative impacts to existing Wilderness as pressures continue to mount.
post by David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator, HCPC