Columbia study will stop short of plan

March 24, 2003

By John K. Wiley

The Associated Press

Ritzville, Adams County, Washington - Mike Poulson used to farm.

That was before he became convinced that a massive federal study would impede his ability to pursue his avocation. Two years ago, Poulson leased out his 300-acre irrigated spread near Connell and began devoting all of his time to what he calls "turning the Titanic."

The big ship he's been trying to turn in midcourse is called the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICEBMP).

Initiated under former President Clinton to "develop a scientifically sound and ecosystem-based strategy for management of eastside forests," the project studied the landscape, wildlife and economy of the Columbia River and its tributaries in several Western states.

Nine years and an estimated $53 million later, the study has been completed, but the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) say they won't publish a regional plan, called a record of decision, to put its findings into use.

Instead, most of the study's science will be incorporated into land-use plans being revised by the Forest Service and the BLM on national forests and rangelands.

Poulson said farmers are concerned that the study raised the possibility of regulations that would protect water quality and stream flows to benefit salmon but cut off much of the irrigation needed to farm.

Farmers don't want to see such restrictions built into individual forest plans, either, Poulson said. "We continue to see those reappear as though they were peer-reviewed science and, in most cases, they aren't," he said.

Scores of reports studied wildfire threats, noxious weeds, the protection and restoration of fish and wildlife habitat, and the socio-economic effects of federal land-use decisions.

The study area encompasses federal land within 144 million acres in Eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, all of Idaho, western Montana and small sections of California, Nevada and Wyoming.

The effort officially ended in January, when 74 groups and individuals who had filed protests received certified letters announcing a decision to shift land-use planning to "subregional" levels. Federal agencies agreed to try incorporating provisions of the study into individual forest and range plans.

That strategy "is not a formal decision and not subject to administrative review through the BLM protest procedures, or the (Forest Service) appeal process," the letter stated, adding that the decision effectively closes the protest process.

Fish and conservation groups were among those protesting parts of the study.

"ICBEMP appears to be dead, but the obligations certainly are not," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission in Portland, which lobbies to make more water available for fish.

Conservation groups will carefully watch development of individual forest plans to ensure fish-protection issues are addressed, Hudson said.

Poulson, a member of the Washington State Farm Bureau and executive director of the Washington Agriculture Legal Foundation, said he's glad the Columbia Basin plan petered out before becoming law, but he added, "There are a lot of other shoes still to drop that cover the same areas.

"We're happy that it's finished, but there are a lot of other projects that are moving forward to cause all of the restrictiveness that ICBEMP would cause."

Policies that started during the Clinton administration could take years to change, even with a new administration in Washington, Poulson said.

Mary Scurlock, a spokeswoman for American Rivers, a Eugene, Ore.-based conservation group, said the regional plan had something for everyone to dislike.

The rivers group, which advocates protections for salmon, steelhead and other threatened and endangered fish, had hoped the Columbia Basin project would produce regional restrictions on logging, mining and grazing in streamside areas called riparian zones.

Instead, those issues will be resolved on a forest-by-forest basis by the Forest Service and BLM.

"It's clear the Bush administration never wanted a complete regional decision," she said.

"The conservation community indicated the science ought to be done, but the politicians wouldn't allow it. They dropped back and punted it to the (individual) forest level."

While the study was being completed, interim policies for protecting fish and wildlife were set in place, Scurlock said.

"The policies were not perfect, but the question becomes, what will happen to those policies?" she asked. "Will we provide less protection? We're concerned with backsliding from those policies."

Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway in Portland said the original intent of the study was to develop regional plans for fish, logging, mining, grazing and other concerns that "don't stop at state boundaries."

The decision not to publish a record of decision -- which Holloway described as "a contract with the public" -- was made to avoid years of lengthy litigation to resolve the protests.

Rather than trying to develop plans on their own, several national forests in Washington and Idaho have teamed to produce joint plans, using science gleaned from the Columbia Basin project, he said.

Opponents and supporters of the regional-management plan and its strategy for putting it to work in local forests and fields agreed it appeared to be short on specifics.

"We don't know how it all shakes out," tribal fisheries spokesman Hudson said. "What we encountered was dealing with agency 'eco-speak' we couldn't take at face value. A timber sale is 'forest restoration.' That's what we would anticipate if left to local agencies, piecemeal dealing with individual forests and rangelands."

Holloway said the planning effort, though time-consuming and expensive, should not be considered a waste.

"The science covered the entire basin. It was the first time we had a social, economic and ecological view of the basin," he said.

"It provides a context for managers to make decisions on a much smaller level. They have a much better idea of the condition of fish, water and our communities."

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

Mark Poulson

Connell, Washington