By TERRI HARBER
The long-anticipated Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is now available for review.
The plan was officially released today, March 16. U.S. Forest Service officials spent much of Thursday in telephone conferences with various interest groups as well as area media outlets. They also have been meeting with local government officials to explain how the plan might affect their communities.
"We've had a lot of public interest," said Monica Schwalbach, forest supervisor.
The past year and a half has been spent integrating the contents of letters, petitions and other opinions about the plan that were submitted in response to the Environmental Impact Statement presented to the public in 2010.
The forest's Travel Management Plan has garnered about 5,000 comments from citizens, groups and agencies, Schwalbach said.
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.
The "differences in perspective" have been "a challenge for a land management agency to sort through," she said.
This effort to get the word out about the plan is going to be long-term. It's likely people using the forest would need to have a map available for reference. The maps won't be available until June - partly why the plan won't be in effect until then.
The first year of plan implementation will stress public education about the new rules, Schwalbach said.
She expects getting the word out to forest users would require much more effort than erecting signs and distributing maps.
Wallowa-Whitman has been considered "open forest for motorized travel," she said. The new plan will require "staff getting out there and chatting with people."
The Forest Service also expects people will discover map errors during this first year. When new maps have been distributed at other national forests "a number of forest visitors would come in and say 'you've got something wrong with this map.' "
Schwalbach expects maps to be completed by the summer. There will be road maps as well as location maps available.
Important to remember: If a route isn't designated as open, then it's closed to motor vehicles. And no cross-country travel will be allowed.
The project area will have 3,065 miles of roads and trails for public motor vehicle use. There used to be roughly 6,700 miles worth of these routes, Schwalbach said.
"In our forest over half of the mileage of roads are going to be closed," said Baker City Mayor Dennis Dorrah, who said that Baker County has been working closely with the Forest Service on the plan.
The county's Natural Resources Advisory Committee prepared a comprehensive survey of roads that people wanted open and worked to ensure that access needs are met as often as possible, said Jan Kerns, NRAC chair. Her husband, Tim Kerns, is a Baker County commissioner.
Kerns said she hadn't been able to review the plan yet and didn't want to comment.
If Baker County officials were to object to any portion of the plan and they requested support from the city, "we'd certainly allow them to come before the council and present their arguments," Dorrah said.
Approximately 4,300 miles is available for public motor vehicle use within the entire Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Off-route access will be allowed within 300 feet on either side of designated motor vehicle roads to reach scattered campsites, day-use parking, and to remove firewood by permit.
There are 59 miles of roads not accessible for various day uses, however, to protect resources - scenic byways and wild and scenic river corridors. The Document of Record says that this allows "continued access for law enforcement, firefighters, and other emergency responders."
There were six alternative plans. Two of these were implausible because the first closed no roads whatsoever and the second closed all of the Level 1 maintenance level routes that appeared to have been unused and not maintained for years, though it was determined that a significant number of these roads were being used by all types of motorized vehicles.
Schwalbach said the final plan was a modified version of Alternative 5, which proposed to eliminate cross-country travel and opened more than 3,200 miles of road. It was intended to strike a balance between providing recreational opportunities in high-interest locations while reducing effects to resources in areas of concern.
The Elkhorn Face not far from Baker City has been designated as a "Social Circle" with extra emphasis on non motorized recreation, with "quiet recreation opportunities," according to one of the maps detailing these areas.
Public comments about these locations played a significant factor in how these locations were designated, Schwalbach said.
Other Social Circles not too far away from Baker City: Sumpter has been given high priority for off-highway vehicles, Dooley Mountain has prioritized access in and out of the area in case of a fire, and South Fork Catherine Creek Area has focused on fisheries protection.
People making their way around the forest also should be on the lookout for portal signs that inform that they've entered travel management areas. At this point, no additional measures are expected in locations to physically shut them off from traffic, Schwalbach said.
But these resource protection areas have been identified as potentially needing on-the-ground signage or other measures to help the public understand which routes are available for public motor vehicle use.
Baker County: Bennet Peak, Baker City Watershed (Section 6), Killemecue, Red Mountain.
Union County: Spring Creek, Mount Emily/Five Points Area
Wallowa County: Salt Creek and West Fork Brody Creek.
Public comments and suggestions from other agencies highlighted potential needs for monitoring or some "additional measures to provide for clarification of the available routes and protection of natural resources" - West Camp Creek (South Fork), North Fork John Day Wilderness Area; Sumpter; Jim Creek; North Powder-Cracker Creek; Five Points Creek area, including Long Ridge, Camp One, and Sugarloaf Mountain; Grande Ronde River area from Sheep Creek East to Clear Creek; areas adjacent to the Zumwalt Prairie, such as the Cayuse Ridge, Hilton Ridge, Mitchell Ridge, and Thomason Meadows.
Motor vehicle use in these areas will be monitored this summer. If unauthorized use indicates that additional measures are needed, the following strategy will be applied, according to the Record of Decision.
Resource protection areas will receive signage in problem areas to accurately identify routes not available for motor vehicle use. If additional areas are identified where there is confusion about which routes are available for public motor vehicle use or where unauthorized off-route use is a problem, then signage would be used to identify which roads are not open to motor vehicle use.
And if unauthorized off-route use continues after signs are placed in resource protection areas or those locations are subsequently identified as problem areas, "physical route closure or other management actions will be implemented to protect those areas, such as disguising access points and placing obstacles in the paths of the problem routes, including user-created routes."
Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick has just started reviewing the plan, but said that there are "some roads that I think should remain open."
He mentioned Section 6 and North Powder River Road, both "roads people have been using for years."
It's not an enforcement issue for his department and if there is an emergency "we can still get out there," he emphasized.
But it could "cause trouble," Southwick said.
Southwick and Dorrah, who also owns the store York's Covered Wagon that attracts a lot of people on their way to Wallowa-Whitman, both agreed that education about the plan will be crucial.
Schwalbach detailed some of the other numerous aspects of the plan. It addresses significant natural resource concerns, such as watershed protection, and improves the watershed for trout and salmon.
It also doubles the high quality elk habitat through a variety of methods, including keeping the elk in the forest longer through roads management because they had been making their way onto private land and causing damage. And it improves big game security in 17 critical elk habitat areas.
Other goals of the Travel Management Plan:
andbull; Balance motor vehicle access and recreation, while still protecting forest resources.
andbull; Improve the quality of motorized trails, including creating loop routes and managed Jeep and motorcycle trails.
andbull; Expand motor vehicle opportunities in high-priority areas such as Breshears trail system, Winom-Frazier trail system, Spring Creek and trails around Sumpter.
andbull; Protect threatened and endangered fish and their habitat.
andbull; Improve non motorized recreation and hunting opportunities
This plan would supersede the 1990 Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. It's based greatly on Travel Management Regulations created in 2005 to secure a wide range of recreation opportunities while ensuring the best possible care of the land.
Work on the plan began in 2007. The original target date for implementation was 2010.
Flooding that damaged several roads, including the Wallowa Mountain Loop, and the need to complete other maintenance and repair work before money to finish the jobs was taken away, were some reasons cited for the postponements.
The departure of Steve Ellis, the former forest supervisor, also slowed down the progress of the plan. Schwalbach arrived in early 2011 and had to read through thousands of pages of documents.
A public workshop was held in Baker City during July 2009.
Opponents have 45 days to appeal. This period will be followed by a "resolution period" of another 45 days, she said.
The WWNF will publish free Motor Vehicle Use Maps this summer, which show all roads, trails and areas open for motorized travel. Motor Vehicle Use Maps will be available at ranger districts and headquarters office, as well as online at www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman.
Places where forest users would likely go, such as markets and outdoor-oriented retailers in the region, could also have copies of the maps.
Also available online: the Record of Decision, the Final Environmental Impact Statement and the Selected Alternative Maps.
Whether there will be maps or some other sort of onboard navigation available to guide people through the forest is unknown.
The maps aren't intended for winter use with all-terrain vehicles.
Public education about the new travel rules will be the focus this year in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Violators eventually could be fined $5,000, however.