By JAYSON JACOBY
Oregon Congressman Greg Walden is urging the U.S. Forest Service to "start over" with its plan to ban motorized vehicles from 3,600 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Walden, a Republican whose Second Congressional District includes the Wallowa-Whitman, isn't just giving lip service to an issue that has angered many local residents and prompted a protest march Saturday in Baker City that involved more than 100 people.
Walden also is seeking, in effect, to put the Forest Service's budget on the bargaining table as well.
The congressman has proposed attaching what's known as a "rider" to the bill that includes money to operate the Forest Service in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
In a letter to Reps. Mike Simpson and James Moran, members of the House Committee on Appropriations, Walden suggests the Forest Service budget bill include the rider that reads, in part, "Where communities are dissatisfied with travel management plans, the Committee directs the Forest Service to revise these plans in consultation with, and to include more input from, the communities."
Walden's advocacy has heartened opponents of the TMP, who believe the coming restrictions on motor vehicles will curtail recreation and concentrate vehicles on a relative handful of roads.
That group got more good news Tuesday when Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach announced that she was withdrawing her decision to gather more information from local residents about the TMP and its effects.
On the other side of the debate, residents who wanted Schwalbach to ban motor vehicles from more roads contend Walden is favoring one segment of his constituency over another.
Walden, in a Monday letter addressed to Kent Connaughton, the Forest Service's head forester for the Pacific Northwest region, wrote that the TMP which Schwalbach announced on March 15 fails to reflect the concerns of Northeastern Oregon residents about the effects of banning motor vehicles from roads.
"Start over," Walden wrote. "Put people in charge who will value the suggestions of Eastern Oregon's citizens. And then go meet with the local residents and make sure that rural Oregon's voice is reflected in the final plan."
Walden, who also spoke with Connaughton by telephone on Monday, wrote in the letter that many local residents have told him "they were largely, if not entirely, ignored by the U.S. Forest Service. This amounts to an assault on good process and the public's ability to enjoy their natural resources. This is unacceptable."
It's not clear what effect Walden's letter and phone call might have on the Wallowa-Whitman's TMP.
Although the Forest Service is part of the executive branch, Congress does have control over its budget, said Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Walden. The congressman's proposed rider is an example of how elected legislators can exert influence over agencies.
Prior to Schwalbach's announcement Tuesday, the Wallowa-Whitman's TMP was scheduled to take effect in June, when the forest makes available free maps showing which roads and trails are open to vehicles.
Many of the affected roads are still blocked by snow.
(The TMP doesn't affect snowmobiles.)
Mike Ragsdale of Baker City, who helped to organize Saturday's protest, said Tuesday that he's "cautiously optimistic" Walden's efforts will at least delay the plan.
"If it has any effect at all, that would be incredibly important," Ragsdale said. "It's good to know that all the powers that be are involved now. It's exciting."
David Mildrexler, ecosystem conservation coordinator for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, decries Walden's advocacy as premature.
"We haven't even seen the process through," Mildrexler said Tuesday. "There is an appeal process where changes can occur, and there's a chance to find more common ground."
The deadline to appeal the TMP was April 30, but that date is moot due to Schwalbach's withdrawal of her decision.
Mildrexler points out that fans of motor vehicle access aren't the only ones who didn't get everything they wanted from the TMP.
The Hells Canyon Preservation Council, along with several other groups, favored an alternative that would have banned motor vehicles from about 500 more miles of roads than are included in the TMP.
"We feel like everybody's voice contributed to this process," Mildrexler said. "The decision (Schwalbach made) is a genuine attempt to balance these competing interests. But Greg Walden's efforts threaten to upset that balance. We feel like he is trying to appease just a portion of the community over everyone else."
Wallowa-Whitman officials started working on the TMP in the spring of 2007. The process was delayed when former forest supervisor Steve Ellis took a job with as the BLM's state director in Idaho in October 2010.
Schwalbach replaced Ellis, and she needed time to familiarize herself with the TMP. A draft environmental impact statement analyzing the plan in detail was released to the public in 2009.
The TMP doesn't affect the whole of the 2.4-million-acre Wallowa-Whitman, the largest national forest in the Northwest.
About 1.1 million acres of the forest are either off-limits to motor vehicles already - wilderness areas, for instance - or, as in the case of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, they have existing plans that regulate motorized vehicles.
The 1.3 million acres affected by the TMP - about the size of Delaware - includes 6,691 miles of roads or trails that are now open to motor vehicles.
In addition, vehicles can travel cross-country - away from roads and trails - on most of that area.
The strategy that Schwalbach initially chose for the TMP would have allowed motor vehicles on 3,065 miles of roads and trails - slightly less than 46 percent of the mileage open now.
The TMP also bans cross-country travel, except within 300 feet of open roads or trails for certain purposes such as gathering firewood.
Schwalbach's decision to ban motor vehicles from more than half of the miles open now angered many Northeastern Oregon residents who had advocated for a less restrictive TMP.
In 2007, after Ellis announced that the Wallowa-Whitman, acting under a directive set out two years earlier by then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, would be writing a TMP, about 6,000 people signed a petition calling for no roads to be closed to motor vehicles.
Baker County Commissioners, recognizing that some forest roads, although technically open to motor vehicles aren't being used because they're blocked by trees or other obstacles, appointed a committee to inventory Wallowa-Whitman roads in the county.
Officials in Union and Wallowa counties also made suggestions to the Wallowa-Whitman about the TMP.
The three counties' recommendations were encapsulated into one of the six alternatives that were studied in detail in the final environmental impact statement for the TMP.
That alternative - No. 3 - would have allowed motor vehicles on 5,146 miles of roads and trails. That's 2,081 miles more than in the alternative Schwalbach picked.
The counties alternative would have allowed motor vehicles on 77 percent of the roads and trails open now.
Alternative 3 would have banned cross-country travel on the parts of the Wallowa-Whitman in Baker, Wallowa and Grant counties, but allowed cross-country travel in four areas in either Union or Umatilla county.
Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, said the county committee's inventory of forest roads, which he said involved "thousands of hours of work," showed that about 30 percent of the roads on the Wallowa-Whitman in Baker County are not being used by motor vehicles.
But the TMP would ban motor vehicles from many other roads, in Baker County and neighboring counties, which drivers of both full-size vehicles and ATVs have traveled on, Warner said.
Warner said he understands that many local residents, as evidenced by the 2007 petition, don't want any roads closed, regardless of what shape they're in and how often they're used.
But he thinks a TMP that's similar to Alternative 3 - banning vehicles from about one-third of the road mileage rather than the 64 percent in the alternative Schwalbach chose - would be "reasonable."
"I personally don't think there would be anything environmentally wrong with (a TMP similar to Alternative 3)," Warner said.
Mildrexler notes that, according to a Forest Service analysis, about 85 percent of the roads that Baker County commissioners lobbied to leave open to motor vehicles will remain open under the TMP.
Warner counters with another statistic that he calculated.
Taking into account wilderness areas and other parts of the Wallowa-Whitman where motor vehicles aren't allowed, he figures that once the TMP takes effect, about 83 percent of the forest's 2.4 million acres will be off-limits to vehicles.
He said he derived that figure by adding the acreage within 300 feet of open roads and trails - the area where motor vehicles will be allowed.
If Walden's efforts to force the Forest Service to revamp the TMP come to naught, Baker County has another option, Warner said.
It's a federal law, R.S. 2477, that's almost as old as the Civil War.
Congress passed the law in 1866. What it says, in effect, is that any travel route that was in use before the federal government took an action that changed how the land along that route is managed - designating a national forest is the relevant action in the case of the TMP - must remain open to the public.
Counties across the West, including Baker County, have cited R.S. 2477 to ensure the public has access to roads that predate the creation of the Forest Service in 1905.
Warner believes there are several roads in Baker County, which are slated to be closed to motor vehicles by the TMP, that could be deemed, by a vote of the commissioners, as public rights-of-way under R.S. 2477.
"We are going to exert that authority," Warner said. "We are ready to push the envelope on these historic routes."
One example is the North Powder River Road, in the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Baker City.
The TMP would leave that road open to motor vehicles to the Summit Lake trailhead. But between the trailhead and Cracker Saddle, a distance of about three miles, the road would be open only to ATVs less than 50 inches wide.
That provision would exclude full-size four-wheel drive rigs.
Warner said that section of road predates the Forest Service, and could be designated an R.S. 2477 route.
Residents interested in providing Warner with information relevant to the plan can call 541-523-8200 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In response to Schwalbach's decision Tuesday to withdraw the TMP, Matt Burks, a spokesman for the Wallowa-Whitman, encouraged residents who are upset about the plan to be as specific as possible in making comments to the Forest Service.
"If there's a certain area that you've been hunting in for generations, and you can't access that area without an ATV, we need to know those specific areas," Burks said this morning.
Schwalbach was not available for comment.