'Quiet' study has a lot to say about recreation on the forest

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald June 29, 2009 11:21 am

A report bearing the intriguing title “Economic Impacts of Non-motorized (Quiet) Recreation on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest” reached my desk recently.

It was that little word — “quiet” —which caught my attention. The word itself didn’t interest me especially, as I learned some time back what quiet means.

What piqued my curiosity, rather, were the author’s use of quiet to describe recreation, and his decision to confine quiet to the grammatical quarantine that is the parentheses. This suggests to me that the author, Dr. Kreg Lindberg of Oregon State University’s Cascades Campus in Bend, isn’t confident that either quiet or non-motorized precisely conveys the sort of recreation he studied, so he put them both in the title.

This uncertainty was confirmed when I got into the report itself. In the introduction Lindberg switches the order of the words, listing quiet first and non-motorized second. He also encases quiet in quotation marks and subjects non-motorized to the ignominy of the parentheses.

This left me wondering whether the recreation in question is truly quiet, or maybe just not, you know, really loud.

I have a personal stake in this topic because I do a fair amount of recreating on the Wallowa-Whitman, much of it while making little noise so far as I can tell. Also, I’m often not encumbered by any motor except for the tiny electric one in the portable CD player I sometimes carry.

I don’t think that’s the kind of motor Lindberg studied, though.

In any case I empathize with Lindberg on this dilemma about defining recreation by decibels.

His report, which is based in part on Forest Service visitor surveys, lists 26 activities that people engage in on the Wallowa-Whitman. At least that’s how many activities people admit to engaging in.

Almost 80 percent of the visitors surveyed listed one “main” activity — the one they participate in most often.

(The other 20 percent, apparently, are so enamored of at least two activities that they can’t pick only one.)

The most popular activity — 20.6 percent say it’s their favorite — is hunting. I kind of expected that. Most of the animals you can legally shoot in Oregon live on the Wallowa-Whitman, along with several species you can’t.

Lindberg, citing Forest Service and other surveys showing that a minority of hunters use off-highway vehicles (OHVs), decided that, for the purpose of estimating quiet recreation’s contribution to Northeastern Oregon’s economy, “25% of hunting on the WWNF was treated as motorized and 75% was allocated to quiet recreation.”

This seems to me a flimsy piece of reasoning — and not just because hunting frequently involves the firing of heavy-caliber rifles, an activity which, though it requires no motor, can’t under any reasonable standard be described as quiet.

The more significant flaw in the report, I think, is that hunters were asked only whether they used OHVs. This is not at all the same thing as asking hunters whether they use motorized vehicles, of which there are a multitude of types.

I’d wager that the vast majority of people who hunt the Wallowa-Whitman, including people who don’t own an OHV,  drive a rig into the forest during their hunting trips. Some of these hunters park the vehicle in camp and do all their actual hunting on foot, but it still seems to me misleading to describe these hunters as “quiet” while branding only those hunters who cover most of their miles on an OHV as “motorized,” a word Lindberg implies is synonymous with “noisy.”

I offer the same argument as regards the second-most popular activity on the Wallowa-Whitman — “hiking/walking.”

Lindberg puts 100 percent of hiking/walking visits into the quiet category. I like to hike myself, but if I had to trudge 20 miles or more just to get to where the trail starts I’d have to stop there to sleep (it would, of course, be night), then turn around and hike home, having seen a lot of highway shoulder but not much forest.

So like most people I drive to the trailhead, and in so doing make more noise than when I’m hiking.

(Although one time when I was hiking on the Wallowa-Whitman I stepped wrong and slid down a slope of scree. I made a lot of noise that time, what with the rocks banging against each other, and me, and my yelling various — but inventive, if you’ll pardon my boasting — profanities.)

Lindberg’s study, my critique notwithstanding, is significant.

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council, which along with The Wilderness Society hired Lindberg, touts the report as evidence that the local economy would would really hum if only the Wallowa-Whitman weren’t so welcoming to motor vehicles.

Lindberg claims that quiet recreation, as he defines it, generates $2.9 million to $5.4 million per year in labor-related income, more than half the money recreationists spend in the region that includes Baker County.

In a press release, Greg Dyson, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, hails the report as “underscoring the need for the Forest Service to (rein) in motorized recreation for the benefit of wildlife and the substantially higher economic returns that accompany quiet recreation.”

Obviously the Hells Canyon Preservation Council hopes to use Lindberg’s findings — see, closing roads is good for merchants as well as for, say, elk — to persuade Steve Ellis, the Wallowa-Whitman supervisor, to dramatically restrict motor vehicle access when he approves the forest’s new travel management plan that’s slated to take effect next spring.

I think Ellis should close some roads to motor vehicles, too. He ought to start with the dozens of roads that nobody’s driving or riding on now.

But I hope Ellis sees the fallacy in the notion that hunters and hikers will spend their time, and their dollars, on another national forest unless he fashions the travel plan into a sort of funnel and uses it to pour some sugar, figuratively speaking, into the internal combustion engine.

I agree with Lindberg that a lot of people who recreate on the Wallowa-Whitman prefer the whisper of the wind passing through the pines to the burble of a single-cylinder engine.

But I’m not convinced that, first, those people would be happier if Ellis bans motor vehicles from several thousand miles of roads; and second, that if he fails to do so many recreationists will avoid the forest.

To persuade me those contentions are valid you’d have to prove that most “quiet” recreationists never, or rarely, drive a motor vehicle on the Wallowa-Whitman. But I don’t think anyone can prove that to my satisfaction.

Ultimately, though, my main complaint with Lindberg’s report is with neither his methodology (he’s got a doctorate, after all, and I have but a bachelor’s degree) nor his conclusions. What bothers me is that his research is being wielded as propaganda.

The Hells Canyon Preservation Council’s press release: “A growing body of research demonstrates that quiet recreationists will avoid visiting landscapes that become dominated by noise and heavy off-road use, often choosing to recreation elsewhere.”

I haven’t read that research, but the point seems to me perfectly plausible.

Except I don’t see is how that point is relevant to the Wallowa-Whitman.

It seems to me that Lindberg has proved not that “quiet” recreation on the forest is under assault by legions of off-roaders, but precisely the opposite. His study, after all, contends that “quiet” recreation already predominates on the Wallowa-Whitman, even with thousands of miles of roads and thousands of vehicles plying them.

I happen to agree, despite my discomfort about Lindberg’s definitions and use of punctuation. I spend a lot of hours on the Wallowa-Whitman and the place seems to me in the main a quiet place, as forests ought to be.

Dyson and his colleagues want to preserve the tranquility. So do I.

Where our paths diverge is at the tricky question of what’s necessary to accomplish this noble goal.

I just can’t muster a righteous indignation, or even a casual one, about OHVs.

And after reading Lindberg’s report, I don’t see why I ought to try.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.