Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

A Wallowa-Whitman National Forest official's recent statement that the forest intends to keep the North Powder River Road open to motor vehicles, even if Congress designates new wilderness in that part of the Elkhorn Mountains, was welcome.

That's a popular route into the Elkhorns and it should remain accessible by motor vehicles.

But the Wallowa-Whitman's stance is not the definitive word on the matter.

Congress, as Jodi Kramer, the Wallowa-Whitman's public affairs officer emphasized while talking about the North Powder River Road, decides whether to create wilderness.

And Congress - subject, of course, to the president's signature - sets wilderness boundaries.

That said, the Forest Service's recommendation regarding the status of a road that borders a wilderness would likely be persuasive in Washington, D.C.

It's possible to both designate wilderness, and maintain motorized access, by means of a "cherry stem" road.

The basic idea, which Congress has employed in many places, including the north side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Wallowa County, is to allow motor vehicles on an existing road that has wilderness on both sides.

The Lostine River Road is the best example on the Wallowa-Whitman. For about 10 miles the road is bordered on both sides by the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Whether Congress will designate wilderness near the North Powder River Road remains to be seen.

The Forest Service, in the draft version of the new long-term management plan for the Wallowa-Whitman unveiled last month, recommends in its preferred alternative adding about 9,500 acres to the North Fork John Day Wilderness. The addition would start at the North Powder River and take in Twin Mountain and the Dutch Flat Creek valley to the north.

Other alternatives call for a larger addition to the wilderness that would extend both north and south of the North Powder River.

In either case, Kramer said, the Wallowa-Whitman's preference is to continue to allow motor vehicles on the North Powder River Road.

That should remain the Wallowa-Whitman's position, should Congress ever take up a bill that would designate new wilderness in the Elkhorns.

Moreover, we're certain local residents will make it overwhelmingly clear, should the matter ever arise, that the North Powder River Road should remain open to motor vehicles.