Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Jayson Jacoby


The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has released the most detailed document yet examining the public's reaction to last year's hastily withdrawn proposal to ban motor vehicles on more than 3,000 miles of forest roads.

The "Content Analysis Report," which the Wallowa-Whitman posted Monday on its website (www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman/,) analyzes the more than 3,300 letters the forest received during a three-month period in the spring of 2012.

Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach pulled the Travel Management Plan (TMP) on April 17, 2012, a month after it was released to the public.

Opposition to the proposal was immediate.

Crowds paraded on Baker City streets to protest the TMP, and they packed town hall meetings with Oregon's congressional representatives to make their case that the TMP was an unnecessary restriction on the public's use of the Wallowa-Whitman.

More than a year later, the TMP remains in limbo.

The only pending deadline - the end of 2015, or 2 1/2 years away - is for the Wallowa-Whitman to finish what's known as subpart A of the TMP, said Jodi Kramer, the forest's public affairs officer.

Subpart A basically describes the network of roads Forest Service officials believe they need to manage the Wallowa-Whitman, Kramer said.

Subpart A is not a final decision on the TMP, nor will it restrict motor vehicles on any roads on the forest.

There is as yet no deadline for the Wallowa-Whitman to make a final decision on the TMP itself, a decision that, unlike subpart A, would include limits on where motor vehicles can go on the 1.3 million acres of the forest that the plan covers.

(The Wallowa-Whitman is about 2.4 million acres, but the TMP doesn't affect wilderness areas and other places where motor vehicles are already prohibited or restricted.)

The bottom line, then, is that the status quo, as regards motorized travel on the Wallowa-Whitman, is likely to persist at least until 2016, and possibly later.

The forest's main goal now, in response to a common complaint from the public since the TMP planning process started in May 2007, is to create new, more accurate and more detailed maps of the Wallowa-Whitman's network of more than 6,900 miles of roads, Kramer said.

Forest officials will ask the public, through a series of meetings, to contribute to the mapping process, she said.

"We need to have an accurate map that everybody agrees represents what's out there on the ground," Kramer said. "We need that baseline."

Looking back to last year

Between March 16, 2012, and June 14, 2012, a period during which the TMP was released and then withdrawn, the Wallowa-Whitman received 3,340 letters from the public about the proposal.

Although letter-writers dealt with dozens of topics related to roads and motorized travel, a couple of trends stand out in the "Content Analysis Report" released Monday.

andbull; About 83 percent of the letters were form letters that contained exactly the same text but were signed by a different person.

andbull; The vast majority of these form letters - 98 percent - were either of two versions, both of which supported the road closures listed in the TMP and urged Schwalbach to reinstitute her decision.

andbull; Of the non-form letters - described as "original responses" in the report - most were written by people who oppose the TMP and who want the Wallowa-Whitman either to close no roads, or fewer roads than were included in the plan that Schwalbach withdrew.

Many of the people who wrote non-form letters went into great detail about why they object to banning motor vehicles from forest roads, in many cases explaining how they use the Wallowa-Whitman.

Common reasons include that such restrictions would force them to give up riding four-wheelers, hunting, firewood cutting and other recreational pursuits.

In addition, many opponents included in their letters lists of the roads, by number, that they drive on and that they want to remain open to motor vehicles.

Although those letters responded to a TMP proposal that is no longer on the table, Kramer said the comments remain valuable because they're specific.

Just as Wallowa-Whitman officials must decide which roads are required for administrative purposes - the pending subpart A analysis - they also need to know which roads are most popular among forest users.

"Every single letter is important, but the whole goal is to get really good, substantive comments," Kramer said. "We know that form letters are out there, but specific comments are what we're looking for."

Although the report the Wallowa-Whitman released Monday deals with comments submitted between March 16 and June 14 of last year, Kramer said forest officials also will hold on to letters they received either before or after that period, and consider those letters as they work on the TMP.

In a letter that accompanied Monday's release of the Content Analysis Report, Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor John Laurence wrote: "We heard two things loud and clear in your comments and concerns: you want to be engaged actively in any travel management process and we need to start with an accurate map of existing conditions."

Laurence is the forest's third supervisor in the past year.

He started work in January of this year. Laurence replaced Kevin Martin, who served as interim supervisor after Schwalbach took a different Forest Service job last August.