By Jayson Jacoby
A popular four-wheel drive road in the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Baker City will remain open to motor vehicles even if Congress designates a new wilderness there, a Forest Service official said this week.
Jodi Kramer, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said the Forest Service's goal is to exclude the North Powder River Road from any new wilderness.
Congress has the final say in designating wilderness areas, and there are no bills pending to do so in the Elkhorns.
The news about the North Powder River Road is welcome, said Christina Witham of Baker City.
She and her husband, Russell, are members of Locked and Loaded Off-Road, a local group of four-wheeling enthusiasts who drive their modified Jeeps on the North Powder River Road.
(The group's name refers to the locking differentials installed on their vehicles, devices that help them negotiate big rocks and other obstacles, and that their rigs are usually loaded with their kids and other passengers, Christina Witham said.)
"For us it's one of the more challenging runs," she said of the North Powder River Road.
Although there is no pending wilderness bill, some alternatives in the draft version of the revised Forest Plans for the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur - including the Forest Service's preferred alternative - recommend Congress add acreage to the North Fork John Day Wilderness.
The preferred alternative - it's Alternative E in the draft environmental impact statement the Forest Service released March 14 - would add 9,530 acres to the wilderness area.
The addition would include Twin Mountain and the Dutch Flat Creek valley, north of the North Powder River and south of the Anthony Lakes Highway.
That area is east of the Elkhorn crest. The existing North Fork John Day Wilderness is west of the crest.
Motor vehicles, as well as bicycles, are prohibited in wilderness areas.
Kramer said Forest Service officials understand that the North Powder River Road is a popular route in the Elkhorns.
She pointed out that the agency has left open other roads that are bordered on one, or in some cases both sides, by wilderness.
An example is the Lostine River Road in Wallowa County. It penetrates the Eagle Cap Wilderness for several miles, creating in effect a narrow, non-wilderness corridor that's bordered on both sides by the Eagle Cap.
The North Powder River Road - Forest Road 7301 - is an exceedingly rough route, with plentiful granite boulders, stream fords and deep ruts that make it impassable to passenger cars.
But it's long been a popular route for four-wheel drive rigs, motorcycles and ATVs.
The road, which follows the North Powder River from Bulger Flat west for about seven miles into the Elkhorns, leads to three trailheads, including ones for two of the more scenic lakes in the range: Red Mountain and Summit.
Witham said the Locked and Loaded group, which includes the owners of about 20 vehicles, sometimes invites members of other off-road groups, including ones in Union County and in Idaho, to take trips in Baker County.
The North Powder River Road is a favorite route, Witham said, not only because it's challenging but because the scenery in the Elkhorns is spectacular.
Another attraction is that the trip isn't a one-way route, Witham said.
Drivers can follow the North Powder River Road to Cracker Saddle, then descend along Cracker Creek to the ghost town of Bourne and from there to Sumpter and back to Baker City along Highway 7.
Antique maps show the route as a wagon road that connected Bourne and Haines.
In 2009 the Baker County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution affirming the North Powder River Road as a public right-of-way under the federal law known as R.S. 2477.
The basic idea behind R.S. 2477 is that a route that was used by the public before the Forest Service was created in 1905 - and the North Powder River Road qualifies, based on historic maps - must remain open to the public regardless of later government decisions, including designating wilderness areas.
The law doesn't, though, specifically guarantee the public access to such roads on motorized vehicles.
Both Witham and Jeff Smith, Baker County's roadmaster, said Forest Service officials have not acknowledged the county's resolution on the North Powder River Road.
Commissioners asserted R.S. 2477 status for the road in 2009 in part due to the Wallowa-Whitman's pending Travel Management Plan (TMP).
In March 2012, then-Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach approved a TMP that would have blocked motor vehicles from about 3,500 miles of roads.
Although the North Powder River Road would have remained open to motor vehicles, the section between the Summit Lake trailhead and Cracker Saddle would have been open only to ATVs, but not to larger vehicles such as Jeeps.
Witham said the Locked and Loaded group opposed that idea.
Schwalbach withdrew the TMP about a month later, and the matter is still in limbo.
Witham said that during the summer of 2012 she and her husband took a couple of Forest Service employees on a Jeep ride the length of the North Powder River Road to show that the route is accessible to full-size rigs.
She said the group also has volunteered to help rehabilitate sections of the road, but the Forest Service declined the offer because the group does not have liability insurance.
Witham said the group's main target is the section between the Red Mountain Lake and Summit Lake trailheads, where a tributary stream flows on the roadbed for several hundred yards.
Even if the volunteers aren't able to work on the road, Witham said she wants to ensure that it remains open to motor vehicles.
She said that although many visitors either don't have a vehicle capable of driving the entire route, or they're not interested in doing so, the road is valuable because it leads to three trailheads.
The road also is a convenient access point for mountain bikers riding the Elkhorn Crest Trail, Witham said.
The southern 14 miles of that 24-mile National Recreation Trail, between Cracker Saddle and Marble Creek Pass, are open to bicycles and motorcycles (the northern 10 miles, from Cracker Saddle to Anthony Lakes, are closed to both because the trail passes through parts of the North Fork John Day Wilderness).
Witham said she's talked with mountain bikers who rode the Crest Trail from Marble Creek Pass north to Cracker Saddle, then descended the North Powder River Road to a campsite along the river.
She also believes it's important to keep the road open for firefighters should a blaze start in the densely forested valley.