By Jayson Jacoby
Kevin Martin was almost home, almost done with the 558-mile drive from Salt Lake City to Pendleton, when he was waylaid in Baker City by the Travel Management Plan.
Martin figures he'll be here for quite some time.
His task is considerable: Making what likely will be the most controversial decision on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in a couple of decades.
That's the Travel Management Plan (TMP) - a document that will dictate where motor vehicles are allowed to go on the 2.4-million-acre Wallowa-Whitman.
But on Thursday morning, barely three days into his unexpected stint as the forest's temporary supervisor, Martin, 53, had set for himself a more mundane, albeit vital, assignment.
The environmental impact statement for the TMP released in February runs over 700 pages, including various appendices.
"This is a major learning curve for me," Martin said. "There's a lot of information to absorb."
But Martin expects to exercise his ears at least as much as his eyes in the weeks ahead.
He said he can't even begin to contemplate making a decision on the TMP until he has listened to the viewpoints of as many people as possible.
And although he's a newcomer, Martin said he's well aware of the high level of interest locally in the TMP.
"I plan to spend as much time as I can just chatting with folks," he said. "And there's a lot of interested people."
Although forest officials aren't discussing the circumstances that led to Monica Schwalbach leaving her post as Wallowa-Whitman supervisor last week and taking a job at the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Martin said he had no advance warning that he might be involved.
Martin has worked the past eight years as supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman's neighbor to the west, the Umatilla National Forest.
For the past two months he has been working in a temporary post as deputy regional forester for the Forest Service's Intermountain Region based in Ogden, Utah.
Having finished that assignment, Martin was driving home to Pendleton on Friday, Aug. 10, when he got the call about the Wallowa-Whitman vacancy.
That was also the day that Forest Service officials announced Schwalbach's departure and Martin's pending arrival.
Schwalbach is on leave and is expected to start her new job in Portland within the next three weeks, according to a spokesperson there.
The situation that confronts Martin is this:
In March, almost five years after Wallowa-Whitman officials announced that the forest, along with all other national forests, would be writing a new TMP, Schwalbach announced her decision.
She chose a plan that called for banning motor vehicles on almost 3,900 miles of roads and trails that are open to such vehicles now.
That's about 56 percent of the mileage currently open to vehicles (some previous stories misstated the percentage as 65 percent).
Schwalbach's decision provoked a public outcry from four-wheel ATV riders and other forest users who, for the preceding five years, had urged forest officials not to ban vehicles from any roads that are open now.
She withdrew her decision in mid-April.
In early August the Wallowa-Whitman announced a series of public meetings that would take place throughout the region in September, with the goal of gathering public comments about the TMP.
The Wallowa-Whitman also made available maps that are more detailed than the ones included with Schwalbach's initial announcement in March.
Martin said Thursday that he will reschedule the public meetings for later, so that he has time to become familiar with the TMP.
"I'm concerned about trying to have these meetings (as originally scheduled) when I don't know enough about the issue," Martin said. "I don't want to waste people's time. I want to be able to have an intelligent discussion with folks, and right now I can't.
"When we re-schedule the community engagement workshops, I want them to be an open and transparent process, and scheduled at times when most people will be able to attend," he said.
Details when available will be posted on the forest's website, www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman.
Martin said he has no deadline by which to make a decision on the TMP.
"My boss, the regional forester (Kent Connaughton in Portland) told me I needed to take the time to listen to folks and to do the best we can," Martin said. "I'm not under any pressure to do it by this time or that time. I just need to listen."
Martin said he understands, though, that no matter how attentive he is, nor how many meetings are convened, his decision will inevitably upset some people.
For some critics of the TMP, banning motor vehicles from even a single road is unacceptable.
Yet the impetus for writing the plans, as stated by then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth almost a decade ago, is to address the any environmental damage or other deleterious effects that might be caused or exacerbated by unregulated motor vehicle use.
Meeting that mandate, without closing any roads to motor vehicles, simply isn't possible.
Martin said his goal is to make sure that critics of his decision at least understand his rationale.
"My gut level interpretation is that folks don't feel like we listened to them (when the initial TMP was announced)," he said. "This is definitely one decision where you're not going to please everyone. But I'd like people to at least know why I made it."