Big Marsh, a vast marsh and wetland complex in the Deschutes National Forest, was originally a lake, which filled in when Mount Mazama blew, and it now provides a one-of-a-kind natural setting in Klamath County.

Mostly grassland at the end of our long, dry summer, the 2.25-acre Big Marsh is nonetheless inundated with snowmelt for much of the year and provides the largest habitat in the state for Oregon spotted frogs, an endangered species.

One of the largest high-elevation wetland/marsh complexes in the United States (at about 4,700 feet), Big Marsh boasts an overall biodiversity touted by hunters and fishermen, environmentalists and recreationists alike — trout, elk, rare birds such as yellow rails and sandhill cranes, matsutake mushrooms and truffles all thrive there.

Worth protecting

In other words, Big Marsh is worth protecting. As such, Forest Service representatives have expressed confidence that with further leeway in its management, they can better ensure its health.

On Friday, the USFS facilitated an informational tour of the area; attendees included local residents and landowners, members of conservation groups, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and representatives from Lewis and Clark Law School.

“This trip kicks off the initial phase for NEPA,” said Tim Foley of the Crescent Ranger District as he overlooked Big Marsh from a Forest Service access road.

The federal National Environmental Policy Act process is designed as a requirement for actions “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” Specific managerial changes to Big Marsh’s fragile and unique ecosystem will be officially determined as the process unfolds, but the Forest Service has decided that now is the time to get the ball rolling.

Tim Foley, environmental coordinator for the Crescent Ranger District, is the NEPA expert for the Big Marsh project. On Friday he explained to a group of government employees and private citizens that the USFS is one to two months shy of the scoping phase, where it will take public comments, develop ideas and analyze hard numbers.

Drafting an EIS

The next phase is the drafting of an environmental impact statement, which Foley said could be a multi-year process.

Kristin McBride, Forest Service natural resources specialist, said the goal is to sign the NEPA documents during fiscal year 2014 or 2015.