[Federal Register: December 12, 2008 (Volume 73, Number 240)]
[Notices]               
[Page 75667-75670]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]
[DOCID:fr12de08-32]                         

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DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Forest Service

 
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Baker County, OR; Snow Basin 
Vegetation Management Project

AGENCY: Forest Service, USDA.

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

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SUMMARY: The USDA Forest Service will prepare an environmental impact 
statement (EIS) to disclose environmental effects on a proposed action 
to manage fuels and vegetation and produce forest products in the 
Little Eagle Creek, and Eagle Creek Paddy subwatersheds. The Snow Basin 
Vegetation Management Project is located on the Wallowa-Whitman 
National Forest, Whitman Ranger District, Pine Office, Baker County, 
Oregon. The legal location is T.7S, R.44E, all sections, and T.8S, 
R44E, most sections. The project area encompasses two subwatersheds 
located north and northwest of Halfway and Richland, Oregon, consisting 
of approximately 27,680 acres of National Forest System (NFS) lands, 
281 acres of Baker County inholdings, and 2,107 acres of private deeded 
inholdings. The proposed action would use commercial harvest of timber, 
noncommercial thinning, aspen restoration and prescribed fire on 
approximately 17,200 acres. No new permanent road construction would 
occur, but temporary roads would be constructed, existing permanent 
roads would be reconstructed as warranted, and one existing bridge 
would be reconstructed. No Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) or 
potential wilderness areas are affected by this project. Additional 
details of the proposed action are noted below in the SUPPLEMENTARY 
INFORMATION Section.

DATES: Preliminary comments concerning the Snow Basin Vegetation 
Management Project would be most useful if received by January 30, 
2009. A Draft EIS (DEIS) would be completed after reviewing the 
preliminary scoping comments for significant issues and the potential 
development of alternatives to the proposed action. The DEIS is 
expected to be filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 
be available to the public for review by May 2009. The Final EIS is 
scheduled to be completed by October 2009. If approved, the project 
would begin to be implemented sometime in 2010.

ADDRESSES: Send written comments to: Ken Anderson, Whitman District 
Ranger P.O. Box 947, 3285 11th Street, Baker City, OR 97814. Send 
electronic comments to: comments-pacificnorthwest-wallowa-whitman-
whitmanunit@fs.fed.us. Send FAX comments to 541-742-6705. Please 
reference the project name (Snow Basin Vegetation Management Project) 
on your submissions.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Joe Sciarrino, Project Manager, 
Whitman Ranger District, Pine Office, 38470 Pine Town Lane, Halfway, 
Oregon 97834, telephone 541-742-6714, TDD (541) 523-1405, e-mail 
jsciarrino@fs.fed.us. An additional contact is Lynne Smith, telephone 
541-742-6715, e-mail lksmith@fs.fed.us. Additional information and 
large-scale color maps will be posted on the Forest Web site at: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/leaving.cgi?from=leavingFR.html&log=linklog&to=http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/w-w/projects/.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background Information

    The project area is located north and northwest of Richland, 
Oregon, in Townships 6, 7 and 8 South, Ranges 43, 44, and 45 East. The 
project area includes 26,730 acres of NFS (National Forest System) 
lands and 2,107 acres of private deeded in-holdings. A small amount of 
Baker County owned lands (281 acres) also occur within the project 
area. Elevations within the project area range from approximately 4,400 
feet on the southern boundary near Sparta Butte and Forshey Meadow up 
to approximately 6,500 feet at its northern boundary near the Eagle Cap 
Wilderness. The Eagle Creek Wild and Scenic River Corridor averages 
3,200 feet in elevation and roughly divides the project area in half. 
Other major streams within the project area include Little Eagle, Twin 
Bridges, Conundrum, Spring, Paddy, Gold, Packsaddle, Holcomb, Empire 
Gulch, and Dempsey.
    The project area is characterized by a mixture of forest and 
natural openings of various sizes. The forested stands range from high 
elevation subalpine fir/lodgepole pine to low elevation pure ponderosa 
pine. Coniferous tree species are ponderosa pine, grand fir, Douglas-
fir, western larch, Englemann spruce, subalpine fir, and lodgepole 
pine. Deciduous tree species include quaking aspen and black 
cottonwood. The majority of the forested stands have a dense multistory 
stand structure.
    The project area has seen management activity in the past, with the 
most recent being connected to three large vegetation management 
projects: Little Eagle, EagleHolcomb and Eagle-Paddy projects. These 
past actions included timber harvest, noncommercial thinning and fuels 
treatments including hand and machine piling, aspen restoration and 
prescribed fire, and were completed in the late 1990s. While the focus 
of these most recent projects were stand prioritization based upon 
silvicultural need, including tree species composition, stand structure 
and stand density, earlier projects were much more focused on cutting 
larger, high value trees. The Snow Basin Vegetation Management Project 
would be focused on a landscape view with the analysis and treatments 
based on landscape ecological needs.

Purpose and Need for Action

    The purpose and need for this proposal is to begin moving the 
project area landscape toward the historic range of variability for the 
various biophysical environments in the project area, and to 
substantially reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire, and the 
wildfire threat to life and property; particularly in the vicinity of 
the deeded land in-holdings.
    The NFS lands in the project area have been managed with timber 
harvest for many decades. The focus of historic treatments was to 
harvest the large, mature overstory trees, particularly those of high 
value like ponderosa pine. The focus of more recent projects was 
silvicultural needs, but the treatments were located in selected stands 
and scattered throughout the landscape. The assumption and expectation 
was that stands would be treated every 10 years, providing a management 
and maintenance regime supporting maximum tree growth. The 10-year 
follow-up treatments, however, were not initiated and stand conditions 
and landscape conditions have changed. In addition, the natural role of 
fire has been generally excluded from this landscape.
    As a cumulative result, landscape conditions are now characterized 
by deviations from the historic range of variability for the various 
biophysical environments. More specifically, this has resulted in a 
large scale reduction in large diameter ponderosa pine trees, a

[[Page 75668]]

reduced LOS (late old structure), and domination of the faster growing 
shade tolerant grand fir and Douglas-fir. A very high risk of 
uncharacteristic wildfire exists, both because of stand structures and 
fire/fuels condition classes. Therefore, actions needed to meet the 
purpose and need involve:
    1. Restoring characteristic and sustainable stand densities, tree 
species composition, and forest stand structure by:
     Managing stand density to improve diameter growth rates 
towards future LOS (late old structure), increasing stand resistance to 
wildfire and inherent ponderosa pine's resistance to bark beetles.
     Adjusting tree species composition and stand structure by 
selecting for removal tree species that serve as hosts for defoliating 
insects and root and stem disease, and species that are susceptible to 
fire.
     Converting multiple-story stands to single-story stands to 
increase landscape diversity, helping to reduce the extent and severity 
of disturbance and to restore HRV.
    2. Moving Fire Regime Condition Classes 3 and 2 to Condition Class 
I by:
     Adjusting stand structures as in 1 above.
     Reducing natural fuel loadings commensurate to the 
standards established for the specific biophysical environments.
     Managing activity (vegetation management generated) fuels 
also to the standards established for the specific biophysical 
environments.
    3. Placing priority on treating the NFS lands in and adjacent to 
Sparta and Surprise Springs WUI's and one stand in the Carson WUI. 
Treatments would emphasize a reduction in the risk of uncharacteristic 
wildfire over an improvement in HRV to reflect the emphasis on 
protection of life and property in the WUI areas. The priority 
treatments include:
     Treating the NFS lands identified in the CWPP (Community 
Wildfire Protection Plan) adopted by Baker County.
     Treating other adjacent NFS lands that would help decrease 
the potential for intense fire behavior adjacent to homes and private 
property.
    4. Initiating treatments to restore quaking aspen across the 
landscape to better reflect historic conditions. Aspen historically 
occurred as dense even-aged stands or clones usually seral to one of 
the fir or other coniferous climax species. Today aspen exists as 
scattered individuals or small clumps many of which are overtopped by 
conifers (Eagle Creek Watershed Assessment, 1997). Estimates suggest 
that aspen trees historically covered 500 to 1,000 acres across the 
Pine and Eagle Creek watersheds. Actual current acreage is unknown but 
is estimated at 200 to 500 acres. Aspen stands not only provide habitat 
for many wildlife species, they also provide vegetative diversity and 
aesthetic beauty. More specifically, restoring quaking aspen involves 
removing all conifer competition with the exception of mature (orange 
bark) ponderosa pine greater than 21'' dbh and Douglas-fir greater than 
32''.
    5. In addition to the primary purposes of creating sustainability 
and improving forest health and decreasing risk of uncharacteristic 
wildfire, the project offers the opportunity to market and expand the 
availability of economically and socially important forest products, 
not only the traditional sawlog and pulp components, but also general 
biomass and fuel wood. While the purpose and need for treatments are 
ecological, the result is forest products. Demands for forest products 
continue to increase, and environmental impacts from the use of 
alternative materials or imported products can be significant. The 
project area is large and includes easy access from two rural 
communities, Halfway and Richland, Oregon, which provides an 
opportunity to offer substantial quantities of fuelwood. Since many 
local citizens rely on fuelwood as their primary source of heat, 
particularly now with the rising fossil fuel prices, the public is 
asking for increased fuelwood opportunities. To support this need, 
emphasis is being placed on, and consideration given to modifying the 
current Forest-wide policy for the project area to allow the removal as 
fuelwood any dead and down trees of any species and any size tree 
within 150 feet of an open road, as long as it is in compliance with 
all other existing permit requirements.

Proposed Action

    The Proposed Action, on NFS lands only, is to:
    1. Commercially harvest 13,887 acres using a combination of 
overstory removal, partial removal, sanitation, thinning, and 
regeneration cuts, with a potential yield of 60-70 MIMBF. This project 
would potentially generate 5 timber sales that would be offered one per 
year over a 5-year period starting in 2010, if the project is approved.
    2. Remove conifer competition from 30 acres of quaking aspen.
    3. Non-commercially thin approximately 12,200 acres (NCT only and 
NCT following harvest treatments).
    4. Prescribed fire only on 3,300 acres.
    5. Prescribed fire on 12,000-13,000 acres to reduce commercial 
harvest activity fuels following commercial treatments.
    6. Grapple pile and burn on approximately 7,220 acres to reduce 
commercial harvest activity fuels following commercial treatments.
    7. Remove Danger Trees from the open road system for public and 
forest worker safety. This would include their commercial removal for 
biomass. Danger trees are defined as as a standing tree that presents a 
safety hazard to people due to conditions such as deterioration or 
physical damage to the root system, trunk, stem, or limbs, and the 
direction (or lean) of the tree. Those removed would meet the 
definition as described in ``Field guide for danger trees 
identification and response'' 2008. Toupin. R., et al. USDA For. Ser. 
Pac. Northwest Region.
    8. Within the project area, use an estimated 180 miles of existing 
National Forest System Road (NFS) for commercial log haul. No new 
permanent specified road construction is planned. Approximately 10.6 
miles of temporary road construction is proposed. These temporary roads 
are in 46 segments ranging in length from less than 0.1 mile to 0.7 
miles, and the average length is 0.2 miles. All NFS roads would be 
maintained in accordance with standard timber sale road maintenance 
specifications. Of the estimated 180 miles of haul roads, approximately 
100 miles are currently closed roads (maintenance level 1) and would be 
re-closed when harvest and post-sale activities, including firewood 
gathering, are completed. Temporary roads would be closed and 
rehabilitated prior to the closure of the timber sale. Reconstruction 
is proposed on approximately 48 miles of NFS roads. Here, the term 
reconstruction refers to road work outside the scope of timber sale 
maintenance specifications and would be listed in the timber sale 
contract for specified road reconstruction and applicable to contract 
clause BT 5.2. Types of activity included under reconstruction include 
a bridge replacement (0.1 mi); repair of abutments on two bridges (0.2 
mi.); realign road location which would create new ground disturbance 
(1.0 mi); restore roads to a serviceable standard by clearing heavily 
overgrown roads, removing slides and slough and repairing slumps 
greater than 10 cubic yards, repairing and improving drainage 
structures, drainage and subgrade reinforcement for seeps and springs, 
and rock surfacing (46.7 miles). Of the roads proposed for 
reconstruction, approximately 21 miles are currently

[[Page 75669]]

closed roads (maintenance level 1) and 27 miles are open roads 
maintained for high clearance vehicles (maintenance level 2). 
Reconstruction is also proposed (by agreement) for 2.4 miles of a Baker 
County road consisting of clearing, drainage, and rock surfacing. This 
project will consider the decommissioning of approximately 6 miles of 
NFS road. These roads are currently closed and will be analyzed for 
future need to the transportation system. If decommissioned, the roads 
would be removed from the NFS road system.
    9. Preliminary analysis indicates that selecting the proposed 
action would require several amendments to the Forest Plan. All center 
around the harvest of live trees greater than or equal to 21 
dbh. In 1994, Forest Plan Amendment 2 imposed a 21 inch 
diameter limit for green tree harvest. In June 2003 the FS Region 6 
Regional Forester issued a letter emphasizing the need for some 
flexibility in applying this standard. Examples provided where Forest 
Plan amendments may be appropriate are listed below. All were 
incorporated into the Proposed Action and include the following:
    1. Moving multi-layered ponderosa pine stands towards LOS of a 
single layer where the pine are competing with grand fir or other 
shade-tolerant species historically held in check by wildfire.
    2. Maintaining shade-intolerant desirable trees <21 inch d.b.h. 
where their recruitment into >21 inch class is reasonably foreseeable 
in the near future, and when giving preference better meets LOS 
objectives.
    3. Harvesting >21 inch d.b.h. mistletoe-infected trees when doing 
so best meets longterm LOS objectives and does not eliminate currently 
important wildlife habitat.
    4. Fuel reduction to protect older trees (e.g. removal of smaller 
``ladder'' fuels).
    5. Overstory removal of shade tolerant species to protect rare or 
declining understory elements, such as aspen or rare herbaceous plants.

Possible Alternatives

    Alternatives will include the proposed action, no action, and any 
additional alternatives that would respond to any significant issues 
generated during the scoping process. The agency will give notice of 
the full environmental analysis and decision-making process to 
interested and affected people, agencies, Tribal governments and 
organizations.

Responsible Official and Nature of Decision To Be Made

    The Responsible Official is Steven A. Ellis, Forest Supervisor of 
the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, P.O. Box 907, 1550 Dewey Avenue, 
Baker City, Oregon 97814. The Responsible Official will decide if the 
proposed project will be implemented and will document the decision and 
reasons for the decision in a Record of Decision. That decision would 
be subject to Forest Service Appeal Regulations at 36 CFR 215.

Scoping Process

    Public participation will be especially important at several points 
during the analysis, beginning with the scoping process (40 CFR 
1501.7). The Snow Basin Vegetation Management Project has been listed 
in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's Schedule of Proposed Actions 
since July 2008, and can be accessed on the Web at: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/leaving.cgi?from=leavingFR.html&log=linklog&to=http://www.fs.fed.us/sopa/forest-level.php?110616. A scoping letter will be 
sent out to the Forest scoping mail list to correspond with the 
publication of this NOT in the Federal Register. Additional information 
and large-scale color maps will be posted on the Forest Web site at: 
http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/leaving.cgi?from=leavingFR.html&log=linklog&to=http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/ w-w/projects/. Tribal governments, government 
agencies, organizations and individuals who have indicated their 
interest will be contacted during the scoping period.

Preliminary Issues

    Preliminary issues identified include commercial harvest in LOS 
stands and harvest of trees over 21 inches in diameter. Additional 
issues may include the potential effect of the proposed action on 
soils, water quality and fish habitat, snags and down wood, disturbance 
to cultural resources, potential for noxious weed expansion, and 
threatened, endangered and sensitive aquatic, terrestrial and plant 
species.
    No Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) or potential wilderness areas 
are affected by this proposed action.

Public Comment

    Public comments about this proposal are requested to identify 
issues and alternatives to the proposed action and to focus the scope 
of the analysis. Comments received in response to this solicitation, 
including names and addresses of those who comment, will be considered 
part of the public record on this proposed action, and will be 
available for public inspection. Comments submitted anonymously will be 
accepted and considered; however, those who submit anonymous comments 
will not have standing to appeal the subsequent decisions under 36 CFR 
Parts 215 or 217. Additionally, pursuant to 7 CFR 1.27(d), any person 
may request the agency to withhold a submission from the public record 
by showing how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) permits such 
confidentiality. Persons requesting such confidentiality should be 
aware that under the FOIA, confidentiality may be granted in only very 
limited circumstances such as to protect trade secrets. The Forest 
Service will inform the requester of the agency's decision regarding 
the request for confidentiality, and where the request is denied; the 
agency will return the submission and notify the requester that the 
comments may be resubmitted with or without name and address within a 
specified number of days.
    Early Notice of Importance of Public Participation in Subsequent 
Environmental Review:
    A draft environmental impact statement will be prepared for comment 
and is expected in May of 2009. The formal comment period on the draft 
environmental impact statement will be 45 days from the date the 
Environmental Protection Agency publishes the notice of availability in 
the Federal Register. The Forest Service believes, at this early stage, 
it is important to give reviewers notice of several court rulings 
related to public participation in the environmental review process. 
First, reviewers of draft environmental impact statements must 
structure their participation in the environmental review of the 
proposal so that it is meaningful and alerts an agency to the 
reviewer's position and contentions. Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. 
v. NRDC, 435 U.S. 519, 553 (1978). Also, environmental objections that 
could be raised at the draft environmental impact statement stage but 
that are not raised until after completion of the final environmental 
impact statement may be waived or dismissed by the courts. City of 
Angoon v. Hodel, 803 F.2d 1016, 1022 (9th Cir. 1986) and Wisconsin 
Heritages, Inc. v. Harris, 490 F. Supp. 1334, 1338 (E.D. Wis. 1980). 
Because of these court rulings, it is very important that those 
interested in this proposed action participate by the close of the 45-
day comment period so that substantive comments and objections are made 
available to the Forest Service at a time when it can meaningfully 
consider them and respond to them in the final environmental impact 
statement.
    Comments received, including the names and addresses of those who 
comment, will be considered part of the

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public record on this proposal and will be available for public 
inspection.

(Authority: 40 CFR 1501.7 and 1508.22; Forest Service Handbook 
1909.15, Section 21).

    Dated: December 3, 2008.
Steven A. Ellis,
Forest Supervisor, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
 [FR Doc. E8-29131 Filed 12-11-08; 8:45 am]

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