Wallowa-Whitman proposal would limit ATV use on portions of forest
COMMENT: The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest will accept comments about its South Fork Burnt River motorized vehicle proposal through Aug. 28.
By JAYSON JACOBY
For motorcyclists and ATV riders, the wide open spaces that distinguish the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest are shrinking.
Over the next three years Wallowa-Whitman officials, for the first time, will limit where people can pilot most types of motorized vehicles on more than one million acres of the forest where right now riders can go wherever they want.
The new restrictions on motor vehicles won't apply to snowmobiles.
Based on size alone, the Wallowa-Whitman's initial proposal to regulate motor vehicles is a short step rather than a long leap.
That proposal, which could take effect later this year, would confine motor vehicles to certain roads and trails in an area along the South Fork of the Burnt River near Unity that covers 56,500 acres. That's a mere sliver of the 1.34 million acres on the Wallowa-Whitman about 56 percent of the forest where motorcyclists and ATVers now have essentially unfettered access.
On that huge chunk of public land it's more than half the size of Baker County riders can travel on roads or trails or blaze cross-country routes where no tires have tread before.
On the rest of the Wallowa-Whitman, motor vehicles are banned in four wilderness acres, which total about 609,000 acres, and vehicles are allowed only on certain roads and trails on 438,000 acres of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Although the South Fork Burnt River plan is small in acreage, the concept on which it's based will, over the next several years, spread across the rest of those 1.34 million acres on the Wallowa-Whitman where off-highway riders have free reign, said Ken Anderson, the ranger for the forest's Whitman Unit, which includes the South Fork area.
Both the South Fork proposal and the ones that will follow are required by a motor vehicle policy that the Forest Service imposed nationwide last fall, Anderson said.
The centerpiece of that policy is this: All national forests must designate specific places where motor vehicles are allowed, and everywhere else those vehicles (except snowmobiles) are banned.
The new national Forest Service policy, which is designed to curb the proliferation of tire ruts and other environmental damage ATVs can cause, is precisely the opposite of the no-restrictions policy in effect now on the 1.34 million acres of the Wallowa-Whitman.
On that larger share of the Wallowa-Whitman, which includes the South Fork Burnt River country, you can, right now, ride an ATV or other motor vehicle anywhere, including away from roads and trails.
The only exceptions are more than a dozen trails, several of which are in the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City, on which motor vehicles are expressly forbidden.
The absence of restrictions on motor vehicles didn't bother Forest Service officials when few people owned motorcycles or ATVs.
But according to one study, between 1972 and 2000 the number of off-highway vehicle riders in the United States rose from 5 million to 35 millions.
That trend has been quite conspicuous in Northeastern Oregon, where four-wheel ATVs, in particular, have become popular over the past decade.
As the roster of these off-road vehicles has grown, Anderson said, so too has the damage their knobby tires can inflict.
For example, people who ride ATVs away from roads or trails can dig knee-deep tire ruts in fragile meadows, reducing the land's value as wildlife habitat.
(Snowmobiles, in contrast to other types of ATVs, ride on, as you might have guessed, snow, which protects the ground from erosion. That's why the Forest Service's new motor vehicle policy exempts snowmobiles, Anderson said.)
Forest Service officials have discovered such degradations across the country, including on the Wallowa-Whitman, Anderson said. Such discoveries prompted the agency to write new nationwide rules that are more restrictive than, for instance, the ATV policy in place on 1.34 million acres of the Wallowa-Whitman.
Wallowa-Whitman officials chose to debut the new Forest Service vehicle policy in the South Fork Burnt River area in part because motorcyclists and ATVers congregate there, Anderson said.
The Blue Mountain Off-Highway Vehicle Trail starts along the South Fork, and riders also ply a network of logging roads. Dirt berms block pickup trucks and SUVs from driving on many of those roads, but motorcycles and ATVs usually can bypass those obstacles.
Right now, the Wallowa-Whitman manages the entire 56,500-acre South Fork area as it does much of the rest of the forest motorcyclists and ATVers can ride wherever they want to ride, Anderson said.
The area includes 114 miles of roads that are also open to pickups and other full-size, highway-legal rigs.
The plan Anderson is proposing for the South Fork would confine motor vehicles to:
o 88 miles of the 114 miles of open roads
o 66 miles of off-highway vehicle trails, which would be open to motor vehicles less than 52 inches wide, and to non-motorized vehicles such as bicycles as well as to hikers and horseback riders. The 66-mile total includes seven miles of trail the Wallowa-Whitman intends to build to link existing trail segments
The Wallowa-Whitman's proposal would ban motor vehicles from the rest of the 56,500-acre area, including 162 miles of roads that are closed to full-sized rigs now but open to other motor vehicles.
Anderson said his goal is to ensure ATVers have places to ride while protecting the environment.
"We don't want to limit the availability of the national forest any more than we have to," he said. "We're trying to find the right transportation system that will continue to allow access for users."
Although Anderson is proposing to restrict motor vehicles in the South Fork area to designated roads and trails no cross-country riding allowed, in other words rules might not be so strict on other parts of the Wallowa-Whitman.
Anderson said it's possible that forest officials will set aside certain areas where the current policy will continue riders can travel away from roads and trails.
"There are still some landscapes on the forest that would support cross-country travel," Anderson said.
He said Wallowa-Whitman officials have yet to identify such areas.
The Wallowa-Whitman's neighbor, the Umatilla National Forest, has designated three areas where ATVers can travel cross-country. Everywhere else on the Umatilla, riders must stay on roads or trails that are designated for motor vehicles.
Anderson said he hasn't picked a place on the Whitman Unit where officials will study off-road vehicle use once the South Fork Burnt River plan is finished.
Forest Service officials have estimated that national forests will need four years to completely comply with the new policy.
Revising the ATV rules isn't the only part of the South Fork Burnt River plan.
Anderson also is proposing to redesign the South Fork campground, adding a drive-through there for trucks and trailers, and to move the separate Amelia Creek and Table Rock trailheads to a single location that would accommodate ATVs.