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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Merkley gets an earful about forest road closures

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Merkley gets an earful about forest road closures

Philip Scheler shared his concerns about U.S, Forest Service road closures during a town hall meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley, background, at the Senior Center on Monday afternoon.
Philip Scheler shared his concerns about U.S, Forest Service road closures during a town hall meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley, background, at the Senior Center on Monday afternoon.
By TERRI HARBER

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Scores of area residents came to see U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who hosted a town hall meeting Monday afternoon at the Senior Center in Baker City.

Much of the meeting was devoted to people discussing and asking questions about the Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

The TMP, which was released in mid-March, will ban motor vehicles (except snowmobiles) from about 3,600 miles of forest roads.

The TMP is scheduled to take effect in June.

Tom Montoya, deputy forest supervisor for the Wallowa-Whitman, and Jeff Tomac, acting district ranger, also were on hand Monday to hear people’s concerns.

A common complaint is that detailed maps aren’t readily available.

Rozanne Shanks told Merkley that she’s frustrated because access to her rural subdivision on Black Mountain, about 15 miles south of Baker City, appears sharply curtailed under the TMP. Shanks said residents might have trouble getting out and that emergency vehicles might have trouble getting in should there be a fire in the area.

“It does seem quite a safety issue,” she said. 

Adding to her uneasy feeling, Shanks said, is that a permit system allowing private property holders to use forest roads that are otherwise closed hasn’t been devised yet.

Montoya later explained that maps couldn’t be created until the plan was official and that a permit process should begin in June.

Baker City Mayor Dennis Dorrah described the TMP as “a horrible, horrible thing.”

Dorrah had large-size maps with him and asked several people to hold them up. Pointing to one map, Dorrah said road closures would make it impossible for irrigation officials to reach diversion dams.

Dorrah said he was told by the Forest Service that he could file an appeal because he has “standing” as an elected officer. He plans to use his standing but doesn’t know if it will be through the city, county or on his own. He intended to speak with city staff about it later in the week.   

Jim Scott of Baker City is not happy about the road closures.

“I see a domestic enemy,” Scott said, referring to the Forest Service. “Where do they get their jurisdiction?”

Scott also mentioned having issues with enforcement by federal officials in some other national parks, especially the use of tasers in one highly publicized case, for example.

Montoya said Wallowa-Whitman officials understood that the TMP would be “very controversial” because the idea was to have a “balanced approach” so that some of the concerns of everyone using or involved with the forest are addressed.

“The decision didn’t make people happy,” Montoya said. “But it had to be made.”

Several years ago, then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth ordered all national forests to update their travel management plans. 

There would be an education period this summer before people eventually are fined for trespass or road uses no longer allowed. Montoya said many first offenses that would occur as a result of the plan come with $150 fines, though bigger penalties are possible in cases when a motor vehicle causes damage.

Merkley pointed out that while the Forest Service is only required to take appeals from parties with “technical standing” — those who appealed as the TMP was being drafted over the past five years — “they (the Forest Service) would like to benefit from points everyone has.”

Merkley said he’s worried about how the Forest Service will enforce the TMP, and about roads being closed but not marked as such.

The power of the Forest Service “can be changed on Capitol Hill,” Merkley said.

“Will you have people patrolling these roads? I don’t quite see it,” he said. “We can’t afford to maintain all these roads.”

Ramona Creighton, who said she’s concerned about how the TMP will affect people with disabilities, prompted Montoya to explain later that he believes motorized wheelchairs would not be prohibited on roads that are otherwise closed.

Other concerns included access to firewood, the hampering of economic opportunities through tourism and other ventures, such as mining and hunting, and that those who break the rules will be transported to Pendleton or Portland and held in custody by authorities. 

In a separate meeting Monday morning, more than 60 people opposed to the TMP gathered at the Baker County Courthouse to hear from Kerry White, head of the Bozeman, Mont.-based group Citizens for Balanced Use.

This local meeting followed similar events in Enterprise and La Grande. The event on Friday evening in La Grande drew hundreds of people.

“The people here are very afraid and very angry,” White said after attending Merkley’s town hall meeting.

White said he was dismayed that Monica Schwalbach, the Wallowa-Whitman supervisor who decided on the TMP, didn’t come to speak herself.

“It was disrespectful,” White said. “She should have been here. She signed it.”

The Travel Management Plan is “segregating populations, the non-motorized vs. motorized users,” he said. “Segregation was supposed to end in the ’60s.”

The deadline to appeal to TMP is April 30.

Motor vehicles still would be allowed on 3,065 miles of routes. This is out of a total of 6,691 miles of roads and trails. Pickup trucks, SUVs and other passenger vehicles would be allowed passage over roughly 75 percent of the remaining open routes.

Only some of these routes would be closed seasonally to protect wildlife habitat or to avoid interfering with snowmobiles. 

No cross-country travel will be allowed.

The forest’s Travel Management Plan has garnered about 5,000 comments from citizens, groups and agencies, Schwalbach said previously.

During the plan’s creation, a petition against closing any roads was signed by 6,000 people and a coalition of environmental groups sought to have motor vehicles banned from nearly half of the roads. 

Other areas Merkley wanted to mention Monday to the people who came to see him included his work to save rural post offices; his “Made in Oregon” manufacturing tour; his efforts to replace No Child Left Behind with more effective plan and curricula; his work to get Oregonians employed to work in the forests to thin down the overabundance of burnable material instead of out-of-staters and non-U.S. citizens; and his efforts to ensure the rights of those accused of crimes are upheld.

His attempt to blunt the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision about political super PACs through corrective legislation also is important because current conditions allow a small number of people to “buy out the airwaves and control the agenda.”

Merkley also said that it’s essential that a long-term solution be found to keep money coming steadily to rural areas from timber for essential government programs instead of simply adding a couple of years to existing programs.

Other topics brought up included funding for seniors programs, public transit, internet access, and the Snow Basin logging proposal on the Wallowa-Whitman in eastern Baker County. 

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