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County ponders appeal of forest travel plan
By TERRI HARBER
Baker County officials will meet soon to discuss whether to appeal the Travel Management Plan the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest released to the public last week.
Concern has already surfaced because of the location of some of the approximately 3,800 miles of forest roads that are slated to be closed to motorized vehicles starting in June.
The apparent “quieting down” of the Bennet Peak, Eagles and Conundrum area — sites near Eagle Creek in the southern Wallowa Mountains — is worrisome to the county, said Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr.
Bennet is listed near the top of the closure list contained in the plan’s Record of Decision.
“I believe they’ve gone overboard,” Warner said about the Forest Service’s concept for that area: to improve elk and deer habitat. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Wallowa-Whitman employees will speak to the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee soon, Warner said.
The long-awaited plan unveiled last week is the culmination of work that started almost five years ago.
Currently the Wallowa-Whitman is managed as an “open forest for motorized travel,” said Monica Schwalbach, forest supervisor.
That means that in most parts of the forest (wilderness areas and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area being major exceptions), motor vehicles are allowed unless specifically prohibited.
The new plan, however, reverses that system.
Cross-country travel will be prohibited except within 300 feet of open roads for certain purposes.
The plan also bans motorized vehicles from about 3,800 miles of low-maintenance roads where vehicles are allowed now.
Another 3,065 miles of roads and trails will remain open to motor vehicles.
The travel management plan does not affect snowmobiles.
Warner said county commissioners will decide whether to appeal after Wallowa-Whitman officials meet with the Natural Resources Advisory Committee.
If the county decides to pursue an appeal, its argument likely would focus on the number of roads that would be shut down if the plan is enacted as is, Warner said.
The Forest Service, he said, “is trying to quiet a huge area of the forest.”
Opponents have about six weeks left to appeal. During the planning process, about 6,000 people signed a petition urging the Wallowa-Whitman not to close any roads.