By Jayson Jacoby
When the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest returns to the public arena later this summer with the controversial plan to ban motor vehicles from some forest roads, officials will be listening more than talking.
"We need to listen and to figure out what are people's concerns with the plan," Wallowa-Whitman spokesman Matt Burks said on Thursday. "They can't just be presentations, but literally round-table discussions where everyone gets a chance to speak.
"We're coming to the table because we want to make it a better plan," Burks said.
Which isn't to say that forest officials - including Supervisor Monica Schwalbach, who will make the final decision on road closures - aren't aware of the widespread dissatisfaction with the proposal the Wallowa-Whitman unveiled in March.
That plan called for prohibiting motor vehicles (except snowmobiles) from about 3,900 miles of forest roads - approximately 64 percent of the roads open now.
Schwalbach's decision provoked a lot of complaints, as well as a public protest in Baker City.
She withdrew the decision about a month later.
A common theme among opponents of the Travel Management Plan is that in 2007, when forest officials initially announced they would be working on a travel management plan, about 6,000 people signed a petition calling for no roads on the Wallowa-Whitman to be closed to motor vehicles.
Critics said Schwalbach's proposal in effect ignored those petitions.
But Burks said a Travel Management Plan that doesn't restrict vehicles from any roads isn't an option.
"There needs to be some give and take," he said.
And what Schwalbach and other forest officials hope to take away from a series of yet-to-be-scheduled public meetings this summer are detailed comments from residents about which roads they most want to stay open to vehicles.
"If people can come (to the meetings) with certain roads that they are really passionate about, that will definitely be helpful and will be listened to," Burks said.
Mike Ragsdale of Baker City, who's a critic of the travel plan, said he's leery of "picking and choosing" which roads should remain open to motor vehicles.
That's tantamount to conceding that banning vehicles from roads is legitimate government policy, he said - something he's not willing to do.
"We have to have those roads," Ragsdale said. "Every one of them is an asset."
He pointed out that the travel plan will affect about 1.3 million acres of the Wallowa-Whitman's total of about 2.4 million acres.
Of the remaining 1.1 million acres, almost half is congressionally designated wilderness, where motor vehicles are banned.
And the rest of the forest outside the travel plan boundaries has vehicle bans or restrictions in place.
"What we're saying is don't close any more roads than we've already lost," Ragsdale said.
Although gathering public comments is the main purpose of this summer's meetings, it's not the only one.
Burks said Wallowa-Whitman officials also was to emphasize to residents that the Travel Management Plan is intended to restrict recreation use, not people who use forest roads to get to private property, grazing allotments or mining claims.
All those uses will continue regardless of which roads are closed, Burks said.
The one difference, though, is that miners, ranchers and private property owners probably might need to get a permit to use certain roads that are closed to motorized recreational use, he said.
Those permits will likely either be free or have a nominal cost - that issue hasn't been decided, Burks said.
Regardless, the Wallowa-Whitman's goal, he said, will be to make the permitting process "simple and streamlined" - something that could possibly be done by a phone call or a visit to the nearest forest office.
Another clear public concern is how the travel plan could affect firewood cutters, Burks said.
Here again, specific comments from the public about which roads people drive to get to woodcutting areas would be most useful, he said.
In addition, he said Wallowa-Whitman officials are looking at ways to potentially offset the loss of cutting areas if roads are closed.
Options could include inviting residents to cut firewood in timber sale areas after the logging has ended, or creating maps or other guides that direct people to the best places to gather wood.
Now, the Wallowa-Whitman's main publicity effort related to firewood cutting is to issue a press release reminding residents that the woodcutting season starts May 1 and ends Nov. 30.
As for when Schwalbach will announce a new travel plan, Burks said there is no timeline.
"We've got to get this new information (from the public meetings) first," he said.