Ochoco, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman National Forests; Oregon and Washington; Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project, 6229-6233 [2016-02269]

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 81, Number 24 (Friday, February 5, 2016)]
[Notices]
[Pages 6229-6233]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2016-02269]


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DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Forest Service


Ochoco, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman National Forests; Oregon and 
Washington; Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project

AGENCY: Forest Service, USDA.

ACTION: Notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.

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SUMMARY: The Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, 
are proposing forest restoration and fuels reduction on portions of 
approximately 1,270,000 acres of National Forest System lands. The 
project area consists of selected watersheds amounting to 200,000 acres 
on the Ochoco, 520,000 acres on the Umatilla, and 550,000 acres on the 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. Proposed thinning and prescribed fire 
treatments encompass approximately 580,000 acres across the three 
National Forests. The project area lies within the Blue Mountain 
ecoregion in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, encompasses 
portions of thirteen counties, and includes shared boundaries with 
private, tribal, state and other federal lands.
    Studies of historical forest conditions can be used to help inform 
natural ranges of variation in forest structure, composition and 
density, which are assumed to be resilient to disturbance and change. 
Fire suppression and past timber management practices in dry forests 
have increased the abundance of closed-canopied forest stands dominated 
by smaller diameter, young trees than were present historically. 
Increased canopy closure has also reduced the amount of forest openings 
and early seral habitat. Fire suppression has also caused expansion of 
conifers into aspen stands and historically non-forested areas. Denser 
forests combined with drought conditions in recent years have 
contributed to a record number of wildfires, and less resilient forest 
conditions. There is a need to reduce fuels and move forests to a more 
resilient structure, composition, density, and pattern.
    The purpose of the project is to enhance landscape and species 
resilience to future wildfire by restoring forests to their natural 
(historical) range

[[Page 6230]]

of variation, reduce the risk of wildfire to high value resources both 
on and adjacent to National Forest System lands, and provide a 
diversity of economic opportunities and commodities.
    The USDA Forest Service will prepare an Environmental Impact 
Statement to disclose the potential environmental effects of 
implementing restoration treatments on National Forest System lands 
within the project area.

DATES: Comments concerning the scope of the analysis must be received 
by 60 days following the date that this notice appears in the Federal 
Register. The draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is expected 
in summer of 2016 and the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) 
is expected in December 2016. The comment period on the DEIS will close 
45 days after the date the EPA publishes the Notice of Availability in 
the Federal Register. An FEIS and draft Record of Decision (ROD) will 
be published after all comments are reviewed and responded to. 
Objections to the FEIS and draft ROD must be filed 45 days following 
publication of the legal notice of the ``opportunity to object''. Only 
individuals or organizations that submitted specific written or oral 
comments during a designated opportunity for public participation 
(scoping or the public comment period for the DEIS) may object (36 CFR 
218.5). Notices of objection must meet the requirements outlined in the 
Code of Federal Regulations. Implementation, including treatment layout 
and site specific surveys would begin in 2017. One or more separate 
RODs will be prepared for each of the three National Forests. The life 
of this project plan is approximately 10 years after a decision is 
signed.

ADDRESSES: Send written comments to: Blue Mountains Restoration 
Strategy Team Lead, 72510 Coyote Rd., Pendleton, OR 97801. Comments may 
also be sent via email to: r6restorationprojects@fs.fed.us, or via 
facsimile to 541-278-3730 c/o Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Ayn Shlisky, Blue Mountains 
Restoration Strategy Team Lead, Umatilla National Forest, 72510 Coyote 
Rd., Pendleton, OR 97801; phone 541-278-3762. Individuals who use 
telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal 
Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 1-800-877-8339 between 8 a.m. and 8 
p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    The USDA Forest Service PNW Region's Eastside Restoration Strategy 
(ERS) was chartered in January 2013 to accelerate the pace and scale of 
forest restoration on National Forest System (NFS) lands in eastern 
Oregon and Washington. The ERS focuses on accelerating forest 
restoration at a larger scale and faster pace than traditional planning 
and project implementation processes, The Blue Mountains Forest 
Resiliency Project (FRP) is part of the ERS, and was chartered by the 
Forest Supervisors of the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman 
National Forests to restore the structure, composition, and function of 
dry forests, and facilitate the effective use, where appropriate, of 
planned and unplanned landscape scale fire across all forest types on 
these National Forests. The project area lies within the Blue Mountains 
ecoregion in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, and consists of 
approximately 1,270,000 acres of NFS lands. The overall project 
planning area consists of selected watersheds amounting to 200,000 
acres on the Ochoco, 520,000 acres on the Umatilla, and 550,000 acres 
on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. It includes portions of 13 
counties and shared boundaries with private, tribal, state and other 
federal lands. The project area coincides with ceded lands of three 
treaty tribes (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, 
the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs 
Reservation). The Burns-Paiute Tribe, as an Executive Order Tribe, does 
not have off reservation rights but maintains traditional cultural 
interests in the Blue Mountain Forest Resiliency Project planning area. 
This project was intentionally designed to encompass a large scale and 
narrow scope; test new planning processes; monitor results; learn from 
project results, and adapt as needed to achieve desired outcomes on the 
landscape. The project will produce a single Environmental Impact 
Statement (EIS), which can support decision-making across portions of 
the three national forests that are not in an Inventoried Roadless 
Area, designated Wilderness area, Wild and Scenic River, Research 
Natural Area, or other management area restricted from implementing the 
proposed activities, or not already covered by similar, existing forest 
restoration planning efforts.

Purpose and Need for Action

    The 2015 fire season set a new record for the number of acres 
burned in the United States, totaling over 10 million acres. In 2015, 
the Blue Mountains National Forests of Oregon and Washington reported 
over 282,000 acres burned in wildfires. Throughout the FRP area, 
unusually large and severe wildfires have become more common due to 
decades of fire suppression, past timber management practices, and 
climate change. Wildfire transmission to the rural-wildland interface, 
private forestlands and woodlots, campgrounds, guard stations, 
communication towers, and other high value resources; and the 
increasing cost of fire suppression are of major concern to local 
communities and land managers. Studies of historical forest conditions 
can be used to help inform natural ranges of variation (RV) in forest 
structure, composition, density, and pattern, which are assumed to be 
resilient to disturbance and change. Dry upland forests have become 
denser and expanded into historically non-forested areas, ladder fuels 
have increased, and the abundance of large and/or fire-tolerant tree 
species has declined relative to the RV. Dry upland forest types are 
also showing a deficit of open canopied stands dominated by large, 
fire-tolerant trees of ponderosa pine, western larch, and Douglas-fir. 
Some areas show a deficit of large tree dominated, closed-canopied 
stands. Forests within the project area have also become increasingly 
vulnerable to uncharacteristic outbreaks of insects and diseases. Plant 
and animal species adapted to historical forest structures and 
disturbance regimes are also at risk of loss. The economic livelihood 
of several communities is threatened by the potential loss of jobs and 
industries dependent on resilient forest systems and their active 
restoration.
    The current pace of active forest restoration with thinning and 
prescribed burning in the Blue Mountains is not keeping pace with 
forest growth. Over 2.3 million acres in the Blue Mountains are in need 
of active management toward the RV, with over 1.6 million of these 
acres occurring on NFS lands. Scenario modelling by the Forest Service 
in April 2013 revealed that at the current rate of project planning and 
implementation, the RV on NFS lands in the Blue Mountains would not be 
achieved for decades, if at all. Active forest management depends on 
thriving local restoration industries, helps maintain jobs and 
consistency of forest products from national forestlands, and can 
reduce fire suppression costs. The existence of active local 
collaborative groups within the project area provides opportunities to 
more effectively integrate a range of social values and concerns into 
project plans. To create a

[[Page 6231]]

future forest that is more resilient to changing fire regimes and 
climate, there is a need to take greater action now to restore our 
landscapes, increase fire's beneficial effects, and reduce the exposure 
of communities, highly valued resources, and fire sensitive habitats to 
the unwanted effects of fire and other damaging disturbances.
    Existing conditions for dry forests on the Ochoco, Umatilla, and 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forests differ from the RV in the amounts of 
small tree versus large tree dominated forests, and open versus closed-
canopied forests. The average of RV is about 4% of dry forests for 
small tree, closed-canopied stands, where trees are mostly less than 
about 20'' dbh and canopy cover is greater than about 40%. Current 
conditions of these forests are 15%, 40% and 55% for the Ochoco, 
Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, respectively.
    The average of RV is about 10% of dry forests for large tree, 
closed-canopied stands, where trees are mostly greater than about 20'' 
dbh and canopy cover is greater than about 40%. Current conditions of 
these forests are 50%, 2%, and 1% for the Ochoco, Umatilla, and 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, respectively.
    The average of RV is about 55% of dry forests for large tree, open-
canopied stands, where trees are mostly greater than about 20'' dbh and 
canopy cover is less than about 40%. Current conditions fo these 
forests are about 10%, 2%, and 3% for the Ochoco, Umatilla, and 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, respectively.
    Fire regimes also differ from the RV. The continuity of surface, 
ladder, and crown fuel is increasing and generally resulting in a 
change in fire regime from lower severity, higher frequency fire 
towards higher severity, lower frequency fire. The 50 year average of 
annual acres burned was about 18,000, 26,000 and 34,000 acres for the 
Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, respectively, 
before the current fire suppression era. The majority of these fires 
were of low severity, and relatively high frequency. The available 
current fire suppression era fire history for these forests indicates 
that on average about 4,000, 5,000, and 13,000 acres burn annually. The 
size and frequency of high severity fires are generally greater, and 
the size and frequency of low severity fires are generally lower across 
Blue Mountains forests than desired. Transmission of high severity fire 
from NFS lands to other land ownerships is increasing, in some cases 
resulting in economic and infrastructure losses.
    The project purpose and need is represented by differences between 
existing and desired conditions based on Forest Plan management 
direction. In most cases, desired conditions are similar to the RV, 
except where the Forest Plan or the existence of conflicting values 
specify otherwise. In general, there is a need in the project area to:
    Reduce overabundant closed-canopied forest stands in dry forest; 
maintain existing old forests and increase their abundance over the 
long term; increase the abundance of fire-tolerant tree species and 
large tree dominated stands; and restore forest patterns and 
disturbance regimes that are more reflective of the RV, including 
reestablishing historic openings and grasslands;
    Enhance landscape resilience to future wildfire, and insect and 
disease outbreaks, and increase public and firefighter safety in the 
event of a wildfire;
    Enhance the diversity and quality of habitat conditions across the 
planning area to improve overall abundance and distribution of wildlife 
habitat that is more reflective of the RV;
    Restore tribal treaty resources, and high social values associated 
with traditional uses and culture that are related to the forest 
restoration need;
    Maintain and enhance resources of high social value, and support 
local economies by providing a diversity of resource management 
activities, commodity outputs, ecosystem services, and employment 
opportunities from public lands;
    Improve existing road networks to provide access for forest 
treatments while meeting forest plan standards and guidelines as well 
as Endangered Species Act consultation guidance;
    Build and strengthen relationships among National Forest 
stakeholders through collaborative processes; and,
    Reduce fuel loading in strategic locations to promote safe and 
effective use of planned and unplanned fire.
    The FRP will operate within social, policy, regulatory, and legal 
constraints, and Forest Plan goals and objectives, except where forest 
plan amendments are needed and proposed. This proposal was developed 
under the guidance of the 1989 Ochoco National Forest Land and Resource 
Management Plan (LRMP); 1990 Umatilla National Forest LRMP; 1990 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest LRMP, and is compatible with the 
Cohesive Wildfire Strategy.

Proposed Action

    The proposed action responds to the purpose and need for the FRP. 
No treatments are proposed in any area that is within an existing, 
active project planning area, a recently burned or implemented project 
area, Wilderness, Research Natural Area, Inventoried Roadless Area, or 
in an area identified by the respective Forest Supervisor as being of 
low restoration priority. The proposed action was constructed by 
comparing current conditions to the RV across all ownerships at the 
scale of watersheds (5th field hydrologic units of 45,000-200,000 acres 
each). This ``all lands'' analysis provided the context for determining 
the treatment need, and the appropriate level of proposed treatment on 
NFS lands within the project area. The proposed action discloses the 
general nature of proposed treatments on NFS lands by National Forest, 
and potential and existing vegetation types using the best available 
information. More information and maps can be found on the project Web 
site http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/forestresiliencyproject. After 
scoping, analysis of public comments, collaborative engagement, and 
continued improvement of project data, the proposal will be modified 
and refined to reflect data of higher resolution consistent with the 
other planning alternatives analyzed in the DEIS.
    All proposed forest treatments would be designed to create forest 
patterns more reflective of natural disturbance regimes, and facilitate 
safe and effective fire management to conserve high value resources. 
Forest treatments may include one or more of the following activities: 
Thinning/low severity fire--removes small (5-10'' dbh) and medium sized 
(10-20'' dbh) trees to reduce stand density and canopy cover, and with 
time and growth, lead to an increase in average stand diameter.
    Opening--through mixed severity fire or mechanical treatments, 
removes a major proportion of medium and large trees (>20'' dbh) to 
create openings, or canopy gaps of early seral structure and 
composition.
    Other disturbance/growth--thinning to manage for young stands, 
while increasing tree growth and vigor.
    Growth with low severity fire--allows forest succession and growth 
to occur while maintaining an open forest canopy.
    Grassland restoration--thinning and fire treatments to reduce 
conifer expansion within grasslands, and reestablish historic 
grassland/forest edges.

[[Page 6232]]

    Aspen enhancement--thinning and fire treatments to reduce conifer 
expansion within aspen inclusions, and stimulate aspen regeneration to 
the historical extent of the aspen clone.
    Strategic fuel treatments--includes any of the treatment types 
above, and other actions that change fuel abundance and arrangement, 
and decrease resistance to wildfire control at strategic locations to 
facilitate safe and effective fire management at appropriate spatial 
scales.
    On the Ochoco National Forest, thinning and low severity fire would 
be applied to dry forests on about 115,000 acres within the project 
planning area:
    20,500 acres of smaller diameter (<20'' dbh), closed-canopied (> 
about 40% canopy cover) stands to move them toward more open 
conditions, and encourage growth in average diameter. Opening 
treatments would also be used to create canopy gaps, where needed; 
18,000 acres of smaller diameter, open canopied (< about 40% canopy 
cover) stands to move them toward more open conditions encourage growth 
in average diameter, and/or restore desirable fire regimes. Opening 
treatments would also be used to create canopy gaps, where needed;
    55,000 acres of larger diameter (> about 20'' dbh), closed-canopied 
stands to move them toward more open conditions, and encourage growth 
in average diameter;
    15,000 acres in larger diameter, open stands to restore desirable 
fire regimes, and encourage growth in average diameter without reducing 
the abundance of large tree, open canopied stands overall;
    4,000 acres for grassland restoration; and
    100 acres of aspen inclusions to reduce conifer expansion and 
stimulate aspen regeneration.
    On the Ochoco National Forest, strategic fuel treatments could be 
applied on up to 5,800 acres of smaller diameter moist and cold forest 
to achieve desired planned and unplanned fire behavior, facilitate safe 
and effective fire management, conserve high value resources, and 
restore fire at landscape scales more reflective of the RV. These 
treatments would be integrated with upland dry forest treatments to 
achieve landscape-level objectives.
    On the Umatilla National Forest, thinning and low severity fire 
would be applied to dry forests on about 125,000 acres within the 
project planning area:
    69,500 acres of smaller diameter, closed-canopied stands to move 
them toward more open conditions and encourage growth in average 
diameter. Opening treatments would also be used to create canopy gaps, 
where needed;
    36,000 acres of smaller diameter, open stands to move them toward 
more open conditions and encourage growth in average diameter, and/or 
restore desirable fire regimes. Opening treatments would also be used 
to create canopy gaps, where needed;
    1,000 acres of larger diameter, closed-canopied stands to move them 
toward more open conditions, and encourage growth in average diameter;
    4,200 acres of larger diameter, open stands to restore desirable 
fire regimes, and encourage growth in average diameter without reducing 
the abundance of large tree, open canopied stands overall;
    14,000 acres for grassland restoration; and
    300 acres of aspen inclusions to reduce conifer expansion and 
stimulate aspen regeneration.
    On the Umatilla National Forest, strategic fuel treatments could be 
applied on up to about 87,500 acres of smaller diameter moist and cold 
forest to achieve desired planned and unplanned fire behavior, 
facilitate safe and effective fire management, conserve high value 
resources, and restore fire at landscape scales more reflective of the 
RV. These treatments would be integrated with upland dry forest 
treatments to achieve landscape-level objectives.
    On the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, thinning and low severity 
fire would be applied to dry forests on about 190,000 acres within the 
project planning area:
    127,500 acres of smaller diameter, closed-canopied stands to move 
them toward more open conditions and encourage growth in average 
diameter. Opening treatments would also be used to create canopy gaps, 
where needed;
    39,500 acres of smaller diameter, open stands to move them toward 
more open conditions, encourage growth in average diameter, and/or 
restore desirable fire regimes. Opening treatments would also be used 
to create canopy gaps, where needed;
    1,000 acres of larger diameter, closed-canopied stands to move them 
toward more open conditions, and encourage growth in average diameter;
    7,200 acres in larger diameter, open dry forests to restore 
desirable fire regimes, and encourage growth in average diameter 
without reducing the abundance of large tree, open canopied stands 
overall;
    15,000 acres for grassland restoration; and
    200 acres of aspen inclusions to reduce conifer expansion and 
stimulate aspen regeneration.
    On the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, strategic fuel treatments 
could be applied on up to 90,000 acres of smaller diameter moist and 
cold forest to achieve desired planned and unplanned fire behavior, 
facilitate safe and effective fire management, conserve high value 
resources, and restore fire at landscape scales more reflective of the 
RV. These treatments would be integrated with upland dry forest 
treatments to achieve landscape-level objectives.
    Forest treatments in any Category of riparian habitat conservation 
area would be limited to prescribed fire and small diameter thinning 
(<9'' dbh), and adhere to the Blue Mountains Project Design Criteria, 
which were developed under programmatic informal consultation between 
the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla (and Malheur) National Forests and the 
National Marine Fisheries Service (November 2013).
    Any treatment in old forest management areas, as designated in the 
respective forest plan, would be to support development of old forest 
characteristics and/or achieve forest plan desired conditions.
    The proposed action would utilize the existing road system 
currently in place to facilitate implementation of vegetation and 
strategic fuel treatment activities. No new road construction is 
proposed, unless it is to meet standard and guidelines or Endangered 
Species Act consultation guidance for road location (e.g., to relocate 
a road currently in a riparian habitat conservation area). Where 
necessary, currently closed roads may be used to implement treatments, 
but they would be closed immediately after use. The range of 
alternatives analyzed in the DEIS will include one or more proposed 
road systems that, post implementation, would meet Forest Plan 
standards and guidelines and consultation guidance provided during the 
development of those plans. Temporary road construction would be based 
on site suitability, kept to a minimum to minimize detrimental effects 
such as soil disturbance and potential erosion, designed whenever 
possible and suitable over existing disturbance footprints (i.e., 
legacy roads), located to avoid stream crossings, and obliterated upon 
completion of project implementation.
    Additional benefits of implementation of the proposed action 
include maintenance and enhancement of culturally significant 
resources, settings, viewsheds, and sensitive plant and animal species 
habitat, including those

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of interest to the Tribes. A monitoring strategy will be developed to 
support learning and sharing lessons learned through time. Input from 
interested parties and the most current, applicable science will be 
used to guide the learning strategy.
    Connected actions that would be analyzed as a part of the EIS 
include hazard tree removal, snag creation, down wood creation, soil 
remediation (subsoiling, scarification), invasive plant treatment, 
native seeding of disturbed sites, system road reconstruction, road 
maintenance, re-closure of roads opened to implement treatments, water 
source development, material source development, installation of 
erosion control features, culvert replacement for haul support, 
activity fuel preparation and treatment, hand line construction, 
temporary fencing, stump treatment for annosus root rot, and 
reforestation. A suite of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and Project 
Design Criteria (PDC) will be integrated into the design of 
alternatives and the analysis of effects to ensure that relevant 
natural resources, tribal treaty resources, and social values are 
managed and protected in a manner consistent with policy, law, and 
regulation. BMPs and PDCs will also serve to ensure that implementation 
of the actions described in the ROD are properly executed.
    The purpose and need for action is consistent with the Ochoco, 
Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Land and Resource 
Management Plans (LRMP), as amended and applicable. Other key guiding 
policies include, but are not limited to, the Endangered Species Act, 
National Forest Management Act, National Cohesive Wildland Fire 
Management Strategy, and all laws and executive orders and Forest 
Service policies guiding Tribal consultation.
    Go to http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/forestresiliencyproject for more 
detailed information and maps of the project area and proposed 
treatments.

Forest Plan Amendments

    If necessary to meet the purpose and need of the FRP, the Forest 
Service may need to amend one or more Forest Plans for activities such 
as cutting large trees (>21'' in diameter), restoring or conserving old 
forest characteristics, restoring forest structure in elk habitat, or 
maintaining current road densities.

Responsible Official

    The responsible officials for decisions on the Ochoco, Umatilla, 
and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests are their respective Forest 
Supervisors.

Nature of Decision To Be Made

    This proposed action is a proposal and not a decision. The Forest 
Supervisors of the Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National 
Forests will decide, for their respective Forests, whether to implement 
the action as proposed, whether to take no action at this time, or 
whether to implement any alternatives that are analyzed. The Forest 
Supervisors will also decide whether to amend their respective Land and 
Resource Management Plan, if necessary to implement the decision.

Scoping Process

    This notice of intent initiates the scoping process, which guides 
the development of the environmental impact statement. Issues that are 
raised with the proposal may lead to alternative ways to meet the 
purpose and need of the project. Scoping will also be used to determine 
site specific concerns that are relevant to forest treatment locations.
    It is important that reviewers provide their comments at such times 
and in such manner that they are useful to the agency's preparation of 
the environmental impact statement. Therefore, comments should be 
provided prior to the close of the comment periods and should clearly 
articulate the reviewer's concerns and contentions.
    Comments received in response to this solicitation, including names 
and addresses of those who comment, will be part of the public record 
for this proposed action. Comments submitted anonymously will be 
accepted and considered.
    Several public engagement sessions will be held in Blue Mountains 
communities in March 2016 before completion of the scoping period.It is 
important that reviewers provide their comments at such times and in 
such manner that they are useful to the agency's preparation of the 
environmental impact statement. Therefore, comments should be provided 
prior to the close of the comment period and should clearly articulate 
the reviewer's concerns and contentions.

    Dated: February 1, 2016.
Stacey L. Forson,
Forest Supervisor, Ochoco National Forest.
    Dated: January 29, 2016.
Genevieve R. Masters,
Forest Supervisor, Umatilla National Forest.
    Dated: January 29, 2016.
Tom Montoya,
Forest Supervisor, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
[FR Doc. 2016-02269 Filed 2-4-16; 8:45 am]
 BILLING CODE 3410-11-P