We were more than slightly alarmed when we got our first glimpse of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's travel management plan last spring.
The proposal seemed extreme: Banning motorized vehicles (except snowmobiles) from every one of the 4,260 miles of forest roads deemed andquot;maintenance level 1,andquot; or ML 1.
But as we've delved into the details over the past several months we've grown ever more confident that when that plan takes effect, probably in 2010, far fewer than those 4,260 miles of roads will be off-limits to ATVs and motorcycles.
The latest, and most persuasive, bit of evidence to bolster this belief came to our attention earlier this month when Steve Ellis, the Wallowa-Whitman supervisor, invited each of the forest's five counties to appoint a person to help Wallowa-Whitman employees design the range of options from which Ellis will choose.
Although none of the counties Baker, Grant, Union, Umatilla and Wallowa will get a vote on the final decision (that authority is Ellis' alone), the supervisor's offer implies that he is not only willing to consider a compromise, but is committed to crafting one.
The notion of a compromise is not altogether new, though.
The Wallowa-Whitman's work on the travel management plan has suffered from poor public relations from the start.
When Ellis announced the initial proposal to close the entire 4,260-mile network of ML roads, he referred to the concept, as a federal law requires, as the andquot;proposed action.andquot;
Many people including ATV enthusiasts quite naturally assumed Ellis used that term literally, and that he truly intends to ban motorized vehicles from every ML 1 road.
But there's a lesser-known tenet of that federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969: It requires government officials such as Ellis to choose from an array of alternatives that includes, but can't be limited to, the proposed action.
In other words, when Ellis makes his final decision about the Wallowa-Whitman's travel plan, probably in late 2009, the alternatives he'll choose from will include ones that close fewer than 4,260 miles of ML 1 roads.
Ellis' invitation to county officials suggests that he's inclined to pick an option that's less severe than the close-it-all proposed action.
After all, Ellis has seen Baker County's proposal, which calls for closing about half the Wallowa-Whitman's ML 1 road mileage. And now Ellis has offered to let the county commissioners appoint someone to represent the county on the team that writes the travel plan alternatives.
We've no doubt that that person will strive to ensure that one of those alternatives, if not identical to Baker County's proposal, at least captures its essence.
We're also certain that the four other counties will similarly advocate for alternatives that stake out some patch of middle ground between the Wallowa-Whitman's current motorized free-for-all, and the polar opposite that is the proposed action.
We're optimistic that Ellis, who has in his effort to solicit a variety of opinions gone beyond what the law requires, is looking for the same sort of ground.