Walden’s bill has promise

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board March 19, 2014 07:47 am

Rep. Greg Walden has gotten right to the heart of the debate over managing national forests, and he only needed to write a four-page bill to do it.

Which must be some sort of record for legislative brevity.

Walden, the lone Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, thinks residents ought to have a louder voice when the U.S. Forest Service proposes to restrict motor vehicle use on national forests.

Actually, Walden’s “Forest Access in Rural Communities Act” pretty much gives county commissioners veto power over such decisions as the Wallowa-Whitman’s 2012 Travel Management Plan, a decision that was quickly withdrawn after local residents balked at the proposal to ban motor vehicles from more than 3,500 miles of roads.

Walden’s bill applies to counties, including Baker, Union and Wallowa, that have national forests within their boundaries, as well as to counties that border a county with national forest land.

The bill would prohibit the Forest Service from banning motor vehicles from any road until the agency does two things:

• “consult with each affected county for the purpose of incorporating the needs, uses, and input of affected counties”;

• “obtains the concurrence of each affected county for implementation of the access travel management action”

The second requirement is what makes Walden’s bill so significant.

Although the bill doesn’t define “concurrence,” Andrew Malcolm, Walden’s communications director, said Tuesday that the congressman’s intent is that concurrence would mean “something like a resolution voted on by the county commissioners.”

In other words, unless two of the three Baker County commissioners endorsed a Forest Service proposal to limit motorized access, the agency would have to scrap the plan.

This is precisely what a lot of local residents have advocated for. After all, it’s all but guaranteed that county commissioners would be less likely to agree to motor vehicle restrictions than Forest Service officials would be.

Walden’s bill, though, faces long odds.

We’re skeptical that he can convince enough members of Congress to, in effect, hand over to county commissioners the longstanding federal authority to manage motorized access on national forests. And we doubt President Obama would sign the bill anyway.

Even Malcolm acknowledged that “it won’t be easy to get this done.”

But even if Walden’s bill doesn’t become law, it can — and it should — influence Forest Service policy.

The agency’s boasting of its plethora of public meetings and comment periods sounds to many local residents like empty posturing. The withdrawn 2012 travel management plan is the most noteworthy recent example. The Wallowa-Whitman received thousands of comments, most of them from people opposed to motorized restrictions, and agency officials said those comments would be incorporated into the final decision.

Yet when that decision was announced, and it called for banning motor vehicles from more than 3,500 miles of road, it’s hardly surprising that many commenters felt their opinions had been ignored.

Malcolm said the outcry over the travel management plan was the latest in a series of similar cases that prompted Walden to introduce the bill.

“It’s frustrating that it’s come to this, that it takes this to get the Forest Service to pay attention,” Malcolm said.

True.

But if Walden’s legislative brinkmanship persuades the Forest Service to give more credence to residents’ comments, then he will have succeeded even if he doesn’t change the law.