LA GRANDE — Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes was concerned by what he saw, and even more concerned by what he did not see.
Anderes was looking at a socioeconomic report the U.S. Forest Service used while creating a revised forest management plan for the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests, known as the Blue Mountains Forest Plan. Anderes said the socioeconomic report was so generic, it looked like it could have applied to almost any part of the western United States.
“It lacked specific information about the counties in the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forest areas and their rural communities,” he said.
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts agreed.
“It did not provide an in-depth look at communities,” she said.
The Blue Mountains Forest Plan, created with the help of the socioeconomic report, was shut down in 2018 before it could be finalized after receiving a negative reception from residents and leaders across Northeastern Oregon.
The Forest Service soon will start work on a new revised plan and will be armed this time with a much improved socioeconomic report prepared by Eastern Oregon University’s Rural Engagement and Vitality Center and the Eastern Oregon Center for Economic Information, along with the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon and Wallowa Resources.
“They did a great job,” said Anderes, who was among the first to call for the creation of a new socioeconomic report.
The document, “Blues Intergovernmental Council Final Socioeconomic Report,” was created with funding from the Eastern Oregon Counties Association, the U.S. Forest Service, Wallowa Resources and EOU.
Julie Keniry, program manager of EOU’s Rural Engagement and Vitality Center, and one of the report’s authors, said the new report includes statistics on how U.S. Forest Service management of its national forests affects the lives of those living in the region.
“It is great to see with numbers what the impact is,” she said.
Anderes first suggested the report be written during his time as a subcommittee chair of the Blues Intergovernmental Council, a group that will advise the Forest Service when it begins writing the revised Blue Mountains Forest Plan.
The socioeconomic report provides a snapshot of the 14 Oregon and Washington counties within the area of the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests: Baker, Crook, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler counties in Oregon, and Asotin, Columbia, Garfield and Walla Walla counties in Washington.
Peter Maillie, an EOU economics professor and one of the authors of the socioeconomic report, said the report provides the Forest Service a way to see each of the 14 counties as a unique entity.
“The Forest Service needed a management tool to help distinguish between counties, and this does this,” he said.
The EOU professor said portions of drafts of the report were shown to stakeholders in many of the counties in the 14-county region to make sure the authors were on track before the final version was published.
“We asked them, ‘Is it reflecting reality?’” said Maille, adding that the responses were quite favorable.
He said the report accurately depicts the here and now, and he believes it could provide a good baseline for a follow-up study five years from now.
A broad view
In addition to focusing on counties, the report provides a broad look at the Blue Mountains region. For example, it gives an overview of the area the three national forests encompass and makes some startling observations. It states the region has a land area of 46,227 square miles and a population density of 11.03 people per square mile, ranking it ahead of only Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.
Economic data indicates that if the 10 Eastern Oregon counties in the region were a state, it would rank as the 48th poorest in the United States, with a median household income of $49,853.50, ahead of only Mississippi and West Virginia.
Roberts said this portion of the report was an eye-opener.
“We don’t consider ourselves poor, but the facts and figures show us otherwise,” the Wallowa County commissioner said.
The median income listed means that of the thousands of households in the 14-county region, the one in the middle had an income of $49,850. Maille said reference to the median income provides a truer reflection of the region’s economic health since the presence of enormously wealthy residents will not skew it. He noted, for example, if someone with a huge annual salary moves into an area, the median income will not jump but the average income of everyone in the area rises without anyone’s income actually going up.
The report, citing a study by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit economic research organization based in Montana, states that of the 14 counties, Union, Wallowa, Baker, Grant and Harney lack easy access to major population centers needed to support economic activity, which is having a significant impact on each of the these counties’ economic stability.
“These counties tend to have more volatile income levels, including higher seasonal employment, lower job earnings and few high wage service sector jobs,” the socioeconomic report states.
Headwaters Economics characterizes Crook, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla and Garfield as connected counties. They have rural settings but are connected to major population centers via air, rail, river or interstate highways. These counties, according to Headwaters Economics, have relatively low-income volatility and are experiencing faster increases in job earnings.
Population and economic growth
Economic growth in the Blue Mountains region has been slower than in Oregon, Washington and the United States overall, due in part to limited or negative population growth, according to the report.
Five counties experienced population growth of 35% to 73% between 1970 and 2020 — Union (36%), Umatilla (73%), Malheur (33%), Asotin (65%) and Walla Walla (45%) — and three counties had moderate or minimal growth, Wallowa (15%), Baker (8%) and Grant (1%).
Three counties saw a decline in population: Wheeler (25%), Garfield (21%) and Columbia (9%).
The report states that the 14-county region as a whole had an average growth rate of 49%, far under Oregon’s growth rate of 102% during the same span.
Sensitivity to forest management
Wallowa, Grant and Wheeler counties are rated by the report’s authors as those most likely to experience the greatest impact, positive or negative, from changes in U.S. Forest Service management due to higher degree of exposure and lower resilience. Economic resilience, for the purpose of the report, is the ability to withstand or recover from an outside disruption to the county’s economy. Exposure estimates a county’s economic ties to the national forests of the Blue Mountains.
Umatilla, Malheur and Walla Walla counties are likely to experience the least impact from changes in the management of the national forests they are near due to low exposure and higher resilience, according to the report.
The report also documents the drastic decrease in timber harvests in the Blue Mountains region over the past three decades. It states that the amount of timber harvested annually has gone down from 700 million board feet in the late 1980s to the current 70 million board feet.
Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources and one of the report’s authors, said this reflects a change in the Forest Service’s forest management systems. He explained that the Forest Service went from a focus on operating forests in order to maintain sustained timber yields to a focus centering on ecosystem management. Christoffersen noted, though, this is only part of the reason for the decline.
He pointed out, for example, that “the rates of timber harvest in some areas in the 1980s probably were not sustainable.”
The report indicates that over the past decade Grant County leads the 14-county region in total timber harvest. Thirty-two percent of the timber taken has been harvested from Grant County and 56% of it has been taken from Union, Wallow, Baker and Crook counties as a whole.
Grant County may top the list because it has the largest portion of national forest land in the 14-county region, at 1,593,053 acres, Christoffersen said. This total includes portions of the Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.
“It is a strong center of timber production,” Christoffersen said of Grant County.
The 144-page socioeconomic report on the Blue Mountains region also discusses grazing, noting it has declined since 1990 due to changes in utilization standards and the resolution of resource conflicts.
According to the report, Malheur, Morrow and Harney counties have the largest livestock head counts, and of the three counties Harney is the most dependent on national forestlands for grazing forage. The smallest livestock head counts are in Washington’s Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties.
The report includes the determination that grazing on national forestlands is an integral part of overall ranch operations in the Blue Mountains region.