Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald



A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday that Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach will make access to firewood, particularly for senior citizens, a priority as she and her staff rework the forest's widely maligned Travel Management Plan (TMP).

Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, said that after meeting twice with Schwalbach and other forest officials last week, he's eager to get started on revising the TMP into something that county residents can "live with."

"We've got a lot of work to do, but we need to get it right," Warner said Tuesday.

He said county officials are ready to help Schwalbach and her staff in any way possible.

Schwalbach, who last week withdrew her March 15 decision to ban motor vehicles from about 3,900 miles of forest roads, also will strive to provide the public with detailed maps that list the numbers of all roads, whether open or proposed for closure, said Tom Towslee, Wyden's state communications director.

The maps included with the TMP when it was unveiled last month do not identify by their Forest Service number the many dozens of roads slated to be closed to motor vehicles.

And Schwalbach has agreed to enlist local residents in what Towslee termed "a more robust dialogue that includes all interests with the goal of finding common ground on issues such as multiple use of the forest and protections of traditional activities."

Towslee said the commitments from Schwalbach came after a series of meetings last week that included forest officials, commissioners and other officials from Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, and representatives for Wyden and fellow U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The withdrawn travel plan, which would have banned vehicles from about 64 percent of the mileage that's open now, provoked widespread opposition from residents in those three counties, which share the bulk of the Wallowa-Whitman.

Residents' concern, and anger, about the TMP was the predominant topic during town hall meetings that both Wyden and Merkley hosted earlier this month in both Baker City and La Grande.

"What came through clearly is that there are certain activities that go on in the woods that sort of define what it means to live in Eastern Oregon," Towslee said. "One of those things is cutting firewood."

Residents cut about 12,000 cords of firewood each year on the Wallowa-Whitman.

Firewood is hardly the only issue that critics of the TMP have cited, though.

They contend that closing as many roads as Schwalbach initially proposed would also curtail their ability to pick berries, hunt, camp and, overall, enjoy the Wallowa-Whitman.

Conversely, some conservation groups, including the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande, say that although they want more roads closed than Schwalbach proposed, they consider the original TMP a fair compromise.

At almost 2.4 million acres (the TMP would affect roads and trails on 1.3 million of those acres), the Wallowa-Whitman not only is the largest national forest in the Northwest, it has traditionally been an inviting place for motor vehicles.

As it stands, most roads and trails in the 1.3 million acres covered by the TMP are open to motor vehicles, and they can also legally travel cross country, between roads.

Of the remaining 1.1 million acres, the majority is federal wilderness, where motor vehicles are already prohibited, or in nonwilderness areas that have existing travel management plans.

Warner said his chief complaint with the TMP process is that he doesn't believe forest officials have proved that motor vehicles are damaging the environment in any significant way.

Wallowa-Whitman documents refer frequently to reducing the number of open roads to protect fish and their habitat, the implication being that motor vehicles tear up the ground and increase the amount of dirt that washes into fish-bearing streams during heavy rains and spring snowmelt.

Yet Warner contends that rather than study each road to determine whether vehicles are actually having that effect, forest officials focused instead on reducing the density of open roads over large areas of the forest, a process he terms "arbitrary."

The TMP does list the number of places where a road crosses streams; these crossings are also a potential source of habitat damage by vehicles.

Baker County's volunteer TMP committee, by contrast, spent hundreds of hours traveling forest roads, Warner said.

That group concluded that about 30 percent of the forest roads in the county aren't being traveled by motor vehicles now.

"We did the stuff the Forest Service should have done but didn't do," Warner said. "And we did it with volunteers."

The TMP that Schwalbach withdrew last month did propose to ban motor vehicles from most of the roads that the Baker County committee determined weren't being used anyway.

But the TMP closed many additional roads that local residents do drive on with full-size vehicles, ATVs, or in some cases both.

Warner said he is promoting, as a baseline for the revamping of the TMP, Alternative 3 from the final environmental impact statement for the project.

That alternative, which incorporated suggestions from Baker County as well as Union and Wallowa counties, would ban motor vehicles from about 1,815 miles of roads and trails that are open now. That's almost 2,100 fewer miles than in the alternative Schwalbach picked but later withdrew.

Warner said he's hopeful that a revised TMP based on Alternative 3 would be palatable, though not endorsed wholeheartedly, by many of the local residents who adamantly oppose Schwalbach's initial decision.

The widespread public disdain for that decision prompted the involvement of Wyden and Merkley as well as U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican who represents Eastern Oregon.

Walden proposed to attach a rider to the Forest Service's budget bill requiring the agency to revise TMPs on forests where local residents aren't satisfied with the proposal.

In addition to setting up last week's meetings, Wyden and Merkley co-signed a letter Monday to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in Washington, D.C., in which the senators write that, as a result of the dissatisfaction with the TMP, "the U.S. Forest Service has increasingly lost the trust of the communities surrounding the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest."

Concern about the TMP dates back almost five years, when in the spring of 2007 Steve Ellis, then the Wallowa-Whitman supervisor, announced that the forest would be writing a plan that would restrict motor vehicle use on more than half the forest.

The impetus was a directive laid out two years earlier by then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who cited unresricted motorized use as one of the four main threats to national forests as reservoirs of wildlife habitat and sources of clean water.

In response to Ellis' announcements, about 6,000 people signed a petition calling for no roads to be closed to motor vehicles on the Wallowa-Whitman.

Towslee said Wyden is "not suggesting that no roads should be closed."

In the letter to Tidwell, Wyden and Merkley wrote: "While we understand that some roads need to be closed to protect watersheds and wildlife habitat, it has become clear that the multi-year Travel Management Plan on this forest did not adequately understand or address many concerns raised by local communities."

Towslee acknowledges that measuring what would constitute an "adequate" response to residents' concerns presents a dilemma for Schwalbach.

If motor vehicles are banned from any roads - as both Wyden and Merkley agree is necessary - then it's probably inevitable that some local residents will be angry because the list of closed roads includes some routes they use.

The issue, Towslee said, isn't so much that Schwalbach utterly ignored public comments, but that the TMP she unveiled last month, which would have banned vehicles from almost two-thirds of the roads in question, seemed to stray so far from the prevailing sentiment among local residents.

"I don't think anybody is arguing that the Forest Service has a very difficult job," Towslee said. "But it's a job that needs to be done. The Forest Service has a clear direction now, we think, and we're confident that at the end of the day they'll do the right thing."