TMP letters rich in detail

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board May 29, 2013 08:13 am

Six years have passed since Wallowa-Whitman National Forest officials announced they were planning to ban motor vehicles on some forest roads.

And for almost the whole of that time, officials have urged forest users who have an interest in the Travel Management Plan (TMP) to be as specific as possible in commenting on the proposal.

Some critics of the TMP have been reluctant to do so, citing the reasonable concern that to list the roads they want to remain open is tantamount to sacrificing all the other roads when, in truth, they don’t want motor vehicles prohibited on any road where such vehicles can go now.

In 2007, more than 6,000 people signed a petition opposed to any road closures.

No doubt that remains a popular idea among local residents.

But it’s also clear, thanks to the Wallowa-Whitman’s recent release of a detailed study of written comments about the TMP that the forest received last spring, that many people who oppose road closures in general also heeded the advice to be specific in advocating for their position.

People who support restrictions on motor vehicles, by contrast, were, with relatively few exceptions, content to sign one of two form letters, both of which read rather like a press release from an environmental group.

Those two letters accounted for 76 percent of the 3,340 comments the Wallowa-Whitman received between March 16, 2012, when a version of the TMP was released to the public, and June 14, 2012.

That TMP, which would have banned motor vehicles from more than 3,000 miles of roads — roughly half the mileage open now — was withdrawn a month after it was unveiled.

Letters from opponents of the TMP, though small in numbers compared with proponents’ form letters, were rich both in passion for the topic and in detailed knowledge about the role roads play in the public’s use of the Wallowa-Whitman.

TMP opponents wrote about gathering firewood, picking huckleberries, exploring on ATVs, hunting with elderly companions who can no longer hike long distances over rough terrain but still like to go after a buck.

To put it simply, these letters constitute perhaps the most vivid description we’re likely to ever read about how this 2-million-acre swath of public property is actually used by the people who go there most often.

Of course the Wallowa-Whitman is not their exclusive domain. Public land belongs to every American. We’re not suggesting that a form letter advocating for road closures, signed by someone who’s never visited the Wallowa-Whitman, should be ignored.

Still and all, we hope forest officials, as they work on a new version of the TMP over the next few years, understand that a proposal which might seem like a reasonable compromise, based on road mileages and percentages laid out in a chart, doesn’t necessarily address how people are actually using the forest.

Forest officials have said repeatedly over the years that they want people to submit specific comments about the TMP. The people who worry about the effects of restrictions on motor vehicle access have done precisely that. The next TMP won’t fully satisfy all of those people, but it should at least show that forest officials were as diligent in reading the comments as forest users were in writing them.