By JAYSON JACOBY
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's plan to ban motor vehicles from 3,600 miles of roads later this spring has hit a speed bump of sorts.
And this impediment was thrown up by the very forest official who unveiled the plan March 15.
Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach announced Tuesday, by way of a letter, that she was withdrawing her decision on the widely unpopular Travel Management Plan (TMP).
The vehicle ban was scheduled to take effect in June, when the forest makes available to the public free maps showing which roads and trails are open to motor vehicles.
"The forest needs to develop a travel management plan for public motorized recreation, but I want to be sure the various options for moving forward are considered in a constructive manner," Schwalbach wrote. "I believe that by taking the time now to allow for further dialogue and consideration regarding the concerns that have been raised, we will develop a better outcome in the long run."
Schwalbach did not say when she intends to announce a revised decision.
Matt Burks, a spokesman for the Wallowa-Whitman, said he doesn't expect that any road closures will take effect this year.
Most forest roads are blocked by snow during the winter, and the TMP doesn't apply to snowmobiles, so the plan's effect is mainly limited to late spring through the fall.
Mike Ragsdale of Baker City, who helped organize a protest march against the TMP Saturday,said this morning that he's "ecstatic" about Schwalbach's decision to delay the plan.
"The fight isn't over, it's just been postponed," Ragsdale said. "Ultimately we look at it as a gift. Whatever they come back with will be better than what we have."
Ragsdale and other critics of the TMP contend the vehicle ban will greatly curtail their ability to cut firewood, pick berries, sightsee and other enjoy the Wallowa-Whitman.
Schwalbach's announcement came one day after U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Eastern Oregon in Congress, sent a letter to the Forest Service's regional forester in Portland urging the Wallowa-Whitman to "start over" with the TMP (see related story at right).
Walden, a Republican, also has proposed to House leaders that they attach a rider to the Forest Service's budget bill for 2013 that requires the Wallowa-Whitman to solicit more comments from Northeastern Oregon residents before putting the TMP into effect.
Walden, along with Oregon's two U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both of whom hosted town halls in Northeastern Oregon recently where the TMP was the predominant topic, lauded Schwalbach's decision to delay the plan.
"This is a first step toward rebuilding trust in the process so that the needs of the public are met," Walden said in a press release.
Merkley: "After hearing the numerous concerns from residents at recent town hall meetings in both Baker and Union counties, it was clear to me that a lot more needs to be done to address concerns from the public."
Wyden: "Today's decision by the Forest Service recognizes the importance of rural Oregonians and demonstrates that their voices have been heard."
FULL TEXT OF SCHWALBACH'S LETTER:
It has been one month since the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest released its travel management
decision. Since then, there has been considerable public interest and debate over various aspects of the
plan. As I have listened to the many people who are commenting on the plan, it has become apparent
that there is a good bit of confusion, as well as some concerns that would benefit from more discussion.
Because of these concerns I have decided to withdraw the travel management decision, and stop the
clock on the appeal process that is underway. The forest needs to develop a travel management plan
for public motorized recreation, but I want to be sure the various options for moving forward are
considered in a constructive manner. I believe that by taking the time now to allow for further dialogue
and consideration regarding the concerns that have been raised; we will develop a better outcome in
the long run. Some of the key concerns include the following.
A main concern is there have been significantly different numbers bantered about regarding how many
miles of roads would be designated open for public motorized recreational use, and how many are being
closed to motor vehicles. The number question is a challenging one because there are different ways of
looking at the situation. For instance, there currently are over 9,000 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman national forest landscape, but only about 4,700 miles are considered open to the public. Many
of the others are impassable because they are overgrown with vegetation. Meanwhile, the project area
included in the travel management decision is focused on 1.3 million of the 2.4 million acres on the
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Road totals for the project area are therefore less than those for
the entire forest.
Along with the roads question, is a concern that the maps provided to the public do not offer enough
detail for people to adequately consider the potential implications of the decision. I have heard several
people suggest that the agency provide more information on these maps, such as road numbers,
landmarks, and watershed boundaries. Without more detailed information, it is difficult to provide
specific responses back to the agency about the decision, and what people might like to see changed.
Another key issue is that many people are concerned about access for firewood. While the travel plan
decision provides for identification of additional firewood cutting areas across the forest, many people
are concerned that this approach may not be adequate to meet the need for fuelwood in our northeast
Oregon communities. I have met with quite a few people to discuss this concern and appreciate the
various suggestions that have been offered regarding ways to address the issue.
A separate concern involves access to private lands and permitted uses such as grazing and mining on
the forest. Access to private land and permitted uses is fully allowed by the travel management plan.
Private land owners would still have access to their cabins, miners would continue to have access to
their claims, and grazing permit holders will retain access in allotments to administer their permits.
These are all important concerns and I appreciate the people who are raising them. I also think the
agency has a responsibility to address these concerns, including clarifying misinformation, providing
more specific information to the public as requested, and engaging in further dialogue.
I truly appreciate the passion that has been shown in response to this decision, and want to encourage
everyone to direct this passion in a positive, productive and respectful way. I encourage anyone who
has additional suggestions to share them with me or one of our local district rangers. The Wallowa-Whitman national forest is treasured by all, so let's be sure we develop a plan that is reasonable,
responsible, and makes sense now and for the future.