Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald



The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's new Travel Management Plan (TMP) is a forbiddingly dense document.

Fitting, for the largest national forest (almost 2.4 million acres) in the Pacific Northwest.

The TMP doesn't cover that whole swath.

Motor vehicles are already banned, for instance, inside wilderness areas, which comprise 585,000 acres on the Wallowa-Whitman.

And the 652,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area has its own rules related to motor vehicles.

Still, the 1.3 million acres which the TMPdoesaffect amounts to a significant chunk of ground.

For perspective, the whole of Baker County is only about 30 percent bigger.

The more meaningful measurement for the TMP, though, is road mileage.

That's the issue - and specifically how many miles of roads the Wallowa-Whitman would ban motor vehicles from - that has made the TMP, which was first proposed in the spring of 2007, perhaps the most controversial decision on the forest in the past couple decades.

Almost five years later, the final tally of roads slated to be closed to motor vehicles is about 3,600 miles.

The option that Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach picked will allow motor vehicles on 3,065 miles of roads or trails out of a network of 6,691 miles on the 1.3 million acres.

A majority of those 3,065 miles - about 75 percent - will be open to pickup trucks, SUVs and other passenger vehicles. Most of these roads will be open year-round, but some will be closed seasonally, either to protect wildlife habitat or to avoid interfering with snowmobiles.

About 25 percent of the routes will be open only to off-highway vehicles less than 50 inches wide.

Many of the roads open to passenger vehicles also will be open to OHVs - combined, about 83 percent of the 3,065 miles will be open to OHVs.

But it's not the quantity of roads that will remain open that Tork Ballard of Baker City is most interested in.

Rather, it's the quality of the roads that will be closed to motor vehicles.

Ballard, who with his wife, Wanda, enjoys riding four-wheelers on forest roads, said Schwalbach's decision "is just going to devastate our recreation."

Tork Ballard's chief complaint is that the TMP closes many so-called "spur" roads - usually dead-end routes that branch off main roads.

Ballard said those spur roads are the ones where he and his wife spend most of their time, in part because those roads don't have as much traffic, and in part because many are overgrown, blocked by a dirt berm, or otherwise inaccessible to full-size rigs.

"We try to stay away from the heavily traveled roads," Ballard said. "You don't even need a four-wheeler to go on those main roads."

Ballard said it appears to him that the TMP is designed to ensure travelers "can get from point A to point B."

But he and his wife prefer to explore roads that don't necessarily connect to another route.

Ballard said he's worried that the TMP will concentrate all motorized traffic on a few roads.

He said he doesn't object to the Wallowa-Whitman banning vehicles on certain roads in areas where multiple roads follow roughly the same path.

"But it looks to me like they just closed them all instead," Ballard said.

David Mildrexler isn't completely satisfied with the TMP, either.

But he contends the Wallowa-Whitman is closing too few roads to motor vehicles rather than too many.

Mildrexler is the ecosystem conservation director for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande.

The Council, along with other environmental groups, had urged Schwalbach to close about 500 more miles of roads than she did.

"We are pleased to see that the Travel Management Plan decision will provide some benefits to wildlife and fisheries and end cross country travel and the associated destructive impacts," Mildrexler said in a press release.

"However, the decision does not adequately protect Inventoried Roadless Areas, designating 70 miles of motorized routes through these wild lands," Mildrexler said.

He also criticized as inadequate the Wallowa-Whitman's efforts to reduce the harassment of elk by motor vehicles.

"The decision does not go far enough to protect elk from motorized vehicle disturbance," Mildrexler wrote. "Of the 17 critical elk habitat areas identified in the project area, six will see no measurable increase in elk habitat security. Measurable reductions in road densities in these areas would prevent elk from leaving the national forest for nearby private lands."

Besides its effect on dozens of roads, the TMP reverses the Wallowa-Whitman's traditional policy which allows motor vehicles to travel cross country, away from roads and trails, on most of the 1.3 million acres.

The TMP, by contrast, prohibits cross country travel by motor vehicle, with one major exception: vehicles can travel as far as 300 feet from open roads and trails to park, access a campsite or gather firewood.

Ballard said he doesn't mind the ban on cross country driving.

He hoped Schwalbach would choose the option - it's Alternative 4 in the final environmental impact statement the Wallowa-Whitman released last week - that prohibited cross country travel but would allow motor vehicles to continue using all roads and trails that are open now.

Ballard said he hopes commissioners in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties will exert pressure on Schwalbach to modify the TMP before the restrictions take effect late this spring (that will happen after free maps, which show which roads and trails are open, become available to the public; the maps won't show roads that are closed to motor vehicle).

He said he's also talked with a representative from Rep. Greg Walden's office about the TMP.

But given that 6,000 people signed a petition in 2007 urging the Wallowa-Whitman not to close any roads to motor vehicles, Ballard isn't confident that public or political pressure will have an effect.

"I just can't see where we did anything to change their minds," he said. "I think it can be changed if there's enough uproar, but right now I think this is kind of the final word."

The TMP is subject to appeal for the next month or so.