By Jayson Jacoby
John Laurence feels no pressure to make a decision that's among the most highly anticipated on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in the past few decades.
Which is what to do with the forest's travel management plan (TMP), a policy that could ban motor vehicles from thousands of miles of roads.
Laurence clarifies that he doesn't feel any sense of urgency now to make a decision, just two weeks into his tenure as supervisor of the 2.4-million-acre national forest, based in Baker City.
"Maybe I will," Laurence, 63, said with a laugh during an interview in his temporary office on the second floor of the David J. Wheeler Federal Building.
(The third floor, which houses the supervisor's regular office, is being remodeled.)
Laurence, who replaced Kevin Martin as the Wallowa-Whitman's leading official on Jan. 14 and is the forest's third supervisor since August, understands how significant his decision on the TMP will be.
Since May 2007, when then-Wallowa-Whitman supervisor Steve Ellis announced the forest would be looking at restricting motorized access on the forest, which currently allows motor vehicles in most places except wilderness areas and municipal watersheds, the TMP has provoked widespread concern among residents about its effects.
About 6,000 people have signed a petition urging the Wallowa-Whitman to not close any roads to motor vehicles.
Critics say the TMP would prevent people from pursuing hobbies such as riding ATVs, hunting, picking berries and gathering firewood.
Proponents, meanwhile, argue that the Wallowa-Whitman has a legal duty to limit motor vehicles, to protect elk habitat and to prevent environmental damage.
They point out that the Wallowa-Whitman has 6,900 miles of roads open to motor vehicles, and that closing some roads would not severely restrict the public's access.
Laurence recognizes that the polarized debate over the TMP posed a challenge to his predecessors - and to himself.
Monica Schwalbach, who replaced Ellis, announced in March 2012 that she had approved a TMP that would ban motor vehicles from about 55 percent of the road mileage currently open.
Schwalbach's decision outraged many local residents, who publicly protested the plan with street parades.
Schwalbach revoked her decision less than a month later.
She left the Wallowa-Whitman during the summer of 2012 and was replaced on Aug. 13 by Kevin Martin, supervisor of the neighboring Umatilla National Forest.
Martin scheduled a series of meetings around the forest to talk with local residents, and the TMP was, as expected, the leading topic.
But before Martin made a decision on travel management, he returned to the Umatilla and was replaced by Laurence.
Laurence said he has much work to do before he can weigh the pros and cons of travel management strategies.
"This is a set of very complex issues, and I've just arrived," said Laurence, who has worked for the Forest Service since 2002.
The only deadline in effect now requires the Wallowa-Whitman to have a TMP in place by the end of 2015.
"There is no big hurry," Laurence said.
His first goal is to decide the most effective way to, as he puts it, "re-engage with the public."
That's likely to involve a series of public meetings and periods when written comments can be submitted by mail or email - familiar components of the TMP process since 2007.
But Laurence said he also aspires to meet with as many forest users as possible, and in an informal setting.
Although written comments are useful, Laurence said he often gains a better appreciation for forest users' concerns - in particular when the topic is using roads - by meeting with small groups.
"My feeling is that it has to be that sort of discussion," he said. "To me it works better when I can have someone sit down at a table and show me, on a map, here is where I like to go on the forest and here is how I get there.
"Understanding specifics gives us a better idea of what's important," Laurence said.
He said he understands that many local forest users don't want motor vehicles banned from any roads on the Wallowa-Whitman, while some advocate for closing more than half the mileage.
This disparity doesn't suggest that residents are likely to welcome compromises of the sort Schwalbach proposed last year.
But Laurence sees the situation a bit differently.
"People obviously feel passionately about the forest, and I'd rather that than have people who don't care," he said. "I'm pretty excited about the prospect of engaging with the public. I try to be an optimist."
While he figures out how to ensure that all forest users have a chance to express their opinions, Laurence said he has other vital tasks to deal with.
A legal challenge is pending against the Snow Basin project, a multi-year endeavor east of Baker City that constitutes the biggest timber sale on the Wallowa-Whitman in more than 20 years.
The 2013 fire season could be a busy one, and declining recreation budgets make it a challenge to take care of the forest's hundreds of miles of trails, campgrounds and other facilities.
Laurence said his overarching goal is to ensure that the Wallowa-Whitman's ecosystem is "resilient" - capable of warding off insect infestations and other forest-wide threats.
"Right now I've got all sorts of things on my mind," Laurence said.
Although he has not set any schedule for when he'll start studying the TMP in detail, Laurence guarantees residents that they'll know when he does.
"Nobody will be surprised," he said. "People will feel like they've had an opportunity to express their opinions."