Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project   December 2000

Release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement

The Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (Project) released a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for management of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in eastern Washington and Oregon, Idaho and western Montana.

The Final EIS was prepared based on the public comments received on the Supplemental Draft EIS, Draft EISs, agency input, and scientific information. The Final EIS focuses on providing management guidance for addressing fish and wildlife species habitat, landscape health, and socioeconomic issues. These issues cross administrative boundaries and will benefit from a coordinated, regional approach.

The release of the Final EIS and Proposed Decision initiated a public protest process in which participants in the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project planning process could request that their concerns be reviewed by the BLM Director and Chief of the Forest Service. This process lasted from December 15, 2000 to January 16, 2001. Once the protests have been resolved, any necessary changes will be included in a Record of Decision. After a Record of Decision is signed, National Forests and BLM Districts will begin implementing the new strategy.

Three alternatives were considered. Alternative S2 was identified as the preferred alternative and represents the Proposed Decision for the Final EIS. The Proposed Decision is a long-term strategy that integrates and focuses on the critical and compelling basin-wide resource and socioeconomic issues. It recognizes the diversity of the basin, the complexity of the forest and rangeland health problems facing federal lands, and the needs of tribes and local communities.

Need for the Final EIS

Improving the health of the Forest Service- and BLM-administered lands in the basin is not going to be easy. Human uses and past management practices have significantly altered the dynamic processes of fire, drought, and vegetation that once worked together to promote healthy forests, grasslands and fish and wildlife in the basin. Habitat is fragmented and many of the plants and animals that have historically called the basin home are in decline.

Addressing these downward trends to achieve a more sustainable, healthy landscape in the future will be difficult. Just leaving things alone will not work. Science has underscored the need for restoration of roads that are causing erosion, of forests at risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and disease, and rangelands infested with noxious weeds. Current policies and interim direction for such things as anadromous fish and old forests are only stop-gap measures. A long-term, comprehensive strategy is needed.

The lands in the Columbia Basin were shaped by strong forces of nature that have been altered. Active restoration is needed to promote the health of forests, rangelands, and aquatic systems, and the species that depend on them. Science and results of management efforts have shown that conducting prescribed fire, removing noxious weeds, eliminating roads, and thinning unhealthy and diseased forests are steps that must be taken to promote such things as salmon recovery and the conservation of forests and rangelands so that human uses can be sustained into the future.

In areas with old forests, clear streams and healthy grasslands, these conditions need to be maintained and protected. The Proposed Decision provides a basin-wide blueprint for both restoration and protection.

Ecosystems must be healthy, diverse, and productive to meet the needs of society today as well as those of future generations. Restoring and maintaining ecosystem health and ecological integrity will better support the economic and/or social needs of people, cultures, and communities. One of the primary objectives of the Proposed Decision is to support the economic and/or social needs of people, cultures, and communities, through the availability of sustainable and predictable levels of products and services from Forest Service and BLM-administered lands.

How the Proposed Decision Works

Base-level Direction

There are base-level standards and objectives for aquatic and terrestrial species, forest and rangeland health, and socioeconomics that apply to all Forest Service- and BLM-administered lands in the basin. By looking across Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management boundaries and recognizing the interconnections of the different landscape elements - this base-level direction provides managers and the public with a clear vision of basin-wide ecosystem health and the tools necessary to achieve it.

Restoration Direction

Restoration direction guides restoration work throughout the basin and in specific subbasins which have been identified as High Priority Restoration Subbasins. These 40 subbasins are areas where restoration is most likely to achieve the greatest ecological benefits. This restoration work will be focused first in areas near isolated and economically-specialized rural and tribal communities that are in need of economic stimulus. This prioritization of restoration assists in targeting limited funds to those areas where there are the greatest risks and the greatest opportunities for making a difference. The benefits of restoration include improving aquatic and terrestrial species and habitats, forests and rangelands, and wherever possible the economic vitality and well-being of local communities.

Aquatic A1 Subwatershed, Aquatic A2 Subwatershed, Terrestrial T Watershed Direction

In addition to the fish and wildlife habitat direction found in the base level and restoration direction, the Preferred Alternative provides further protection of fish and wildlife species habitat through the identification of Aquatic A1 Subwatersheds, Aquatic A2 Subwatersheds and Terrestrial T Watersheds where additional management standards and objectives apply.

For Aquatic A1 Subwatersheds, the intent is to conserve and maintain subwatershed and aquatic habitat conditions, processes and functions. Any activities occurring in these areas must maintain or achieve aquatic/riparian/hydrologic objectives. Road building is prohibited in the first ten years of implementation. There are 6.5 million acres of Aquatic A1 Subwatersheds in the project area (3.4 million acres are within Congressionally designated Wilderness Areas or Wilderness Study Areas).

For Aquatic A2 Subwatersheds, the intent is to maintain and improve (restore) subwatershed and aquatic habitat conditions, processes and functions. In Aquatic A2 Subwatersheds the direction calls for restoration, such as reducing adverse road effects, to improve aquatic habitat conditions. There are 7.1 million acres of Aquatic A2 Subwatersheds in the project area.

For Terrestrial T Watersheds, the intent is to maintain and secure terrestrial wildlife species habitats that have declined significantly over time and are in short supply; and to increase the extent and connectivity of these "source" habitats within T Watersheds. These habitat types include old forests, riparian areas, sagebrush and grasslands. Activities in these T Watersheds must maintain or achieve terrestrial habitat objectives. Road building is prohibited in the first ten years of implementation unless needed to secure these areas from immediate adverse road effects or unless needed to achieve T Watershed objectives. There are 14 million acres of T Watersheds in the project area.

The base level, restoration, aquatic and terrestrial direction work together like layers of soil - each with distinct properties and attributes while at the same time they are interconnected. This integrated direction is then implemented at the local level through an analysis process. The broad-scale direction is stepped down to the ground through subbasin review and ecosystem analysis at the watershed scale which will involve identifying risks and opportunities in an interagency, cooperative fashion so that activities will be conducted in the most appropriate areas in the most appropriate sequence to benefit landscape health, fish and wildlife habitats, tribes and local communities.

Activities would be designed to make commodity products available for purchase, to the extent possible, to serve national demand for the products, support economic activity important to rural and tribal communities and local government, and to achieve management objectives in an efficient and cost-effective way.

The Proposed Decision takes into consideration all the components of the basin's ecosystem - it promotes the health of federal lands and benefits fish and wildlife habitats, tribes and communities. The proposed decision improves and bolsters local coordination with tribal governments and local communities and provides a stronger commitment to identify opportunities where we can work together more effectively.

The direction in the Proposed Decision is synchronized to guide a wide variety of desired outcomes including promoting vegetation that is in short supply in the basin - from old ponderosa pine forests to sagebrush plant communities that have been replaced by noxious weeds. The direction guides managers to reduce ecological risks by reducing the road network on public lands and increasing the use of prescribed fire. The magnitude of the forests and rangeland health issues facing the basin require intensive and extensive investment in restoration. The proposed decision provides the best strategy for tackling these significant issues because it sets priorities for investing in restoration where there is the greatest potential for achieving desired outcomes.