Tinkering with Travel Plan

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board March 26, 2012 10:08 am

If the definition of compromise is a decision that makes everybody angry, then the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s Travel Management Plan (TMP) is worthy of its own dictionary entry.

Many local residents, among them ATV riders and four-wheeling enthusiasts, contend that Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach has decided to ban motor vehicles from too many forest roads — about 3,600 miles from a network of almost 6,700 miles.

But other critics, including the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, argue that Schwalbach wasn’t aggressive enough in restricting motor vehicle access to protect riparian areas, reduce the spread of noxious weeds, and curb harassment of elk.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, Schwalbach’s choice seems reasonable.

The Wallowa-Whitman’s road system is, if we can indulge in understatement, ample.

A relatively small number of these roads are so overgrown with trees and brush that they’re not accessible now to motor vehicles; “closing” these roads is a theoretical action rather than an actual restriction on anyone’s access.

Even with the road closures slated to take effect in June, on the 1.3 million acres of the Wallowa-Whitman affected by her decision, about 3,065 miles of roads will still be open to motor vehicles.

Four-wheelers and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are allowed to ride on most of those roads — about 83 percent of the mileage.

And almost as many miles — about 75 percent of the total — are open to pickup trucks and other, larger, passenger vehicles.

The more relevant way to judge Schwalbach’s choice, however, is not by adding up miles but by looking at which roads she decided to limit access to, where those roads are, and how their closure will affect the range of recreation available to the public on their land.

By that calculus, we’d say Schwalbach, with a bit of tinkering, can improve the TMP.

Our main objection to her decision is that it’s likely to concentrate most motor vehicle traffic on roads that are in decent shape and thus accessible even to low-slung sedans.

We understand, of course, why Schwalbach is leaving those roads open to motor vehicles. Those roads are akin to interstate highways — long-distance routes that connect highways, towns, campgrounds and other places popular with forest users.

But for some people — in particular those who like to ride four-wheelers or other ATVs — the real attractions aren’t these main routes, but the shorter, often dead-end, “spur” roads that branch off.

Yet in some parts of the Wallowa-Whitman, Schwalbach intends to ban motor vehicles from the vast majority of these spur roads.

To cite just one geographic example close to Baker City, in the Phillips Reservoir area, between Highway 7 and the Elkhorn Mountains, only one main road — 7240 — will remain open to motor vehicles.

A few dozen spur roads in that vicinity, by contrast, are slated to be closed to motor vehicles.

Many of these roads follow roughly parallel paths. It’s this redundancy that advocates of road closures often point to in arguing for restrictions on motor vehicles.

In general, we agree with that argument.

There’s no legitimate reason to have motorized access to, say, three roads that ply the same drainage and that are, in some cases, so close you could nearly toss a stone from one to the next.

Yet banning vehicles from all of those roads — which is basically what the Wallowa-Whitman TMP calls for in many such cases — is neither necessary nor desirable.

To belabor the hypothetical three-road situation, allowing motor vehicles on only one road would still cut the open road mileage in a given area by about 67 percent.

Leaving a smattering of these spur roads open to motor vehicles would disperse traffic and, as a result, likely avoid dangerous situations.

Certainly it makes sense to encourage, and enable, ATV riders to minimize the time they spend sharing a road with full-size pickup trucks and SUVs.

Schwalbach and her staff on the Wallowa-Whitman had a daunting task, to be sure.

And one that wasn’t their choice — then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth decided several years ago to require all national forests to revise their travel plans.

Figuring out how to balance recreation and wildlife habitat, and deal with hundreds of roads spread over an area the size of Delaware, while trying to satisfy people with diametrically opposed ideas about the highest use of public land — well, little wonder that dissatisfaction is a common element in residents’ reaction to the TMP.

What they came up with is a fine start.

What it needs now is a little more room for people — and their vehicles, for those who get around that way by choice or by physical necessity — to spread out.