Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The Forest Service, in common with most bureaucracies, strives to convince us, as members of the public, that it truly cares what we think about its actions.

Witness the cavalcade of meetings and open houses and, of course, "public comment periods" which proliferate, like dandelions, whenever the agency is up to something in the woods.

Just recently a lot of Northeastern Oregon residents have reacted to the Forest Service's putative interest in public opinion with healthy skepticism or, in many cases, with outright disgust.

We understand why.

After all, when the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest announced five years ago that it would be banning motor vehicles from some roads, about 6,000 people signed a petition urging forest officials to not close a single mile.

That wasn't realistic - the Wallowa-Whitman, like every other national forest, was merely following an order from Washington, D.C., to get a handle on motorized recreation.

As a bargaining chip, though, that petition was reasonable. The message could hardly have been more clear: Keep the road closures to a minimum.

Yet the Travel Management Plan (TMP) that Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach signed last month hardly qualifies as a minimum.

She rejected two alternatives that would have left open to motor vehicles 2,000 miles or 3,500 miles more than will be open under the alternative she picked.

The initial reaction of some critics to Schwalbach's decision was, in effect, to revive the 2007 petition.

We believe the better approach - which is to say, the approach more likely to actually keep some of those roads open to motor vehicles - is the one suggested by Kerry White at meetings this past week in La Grande and Baker City.

White, of Citizens for Balanced Use, in Montana, urges aggrieved residents to file written appeals of the Wallowa-Whitman's TMP before the April 30 deadline.

It's important to note, by the way, that the restrictions on who is entitled to appeal might not be as onerous as some people believe.

To be eligible to appeal, according to federal law, a person needs only to have submitted "substantive oral or written comments to the Forest Service about the TMP" during the 45-day comment period after the draft environmental impact statement was released in 2009.

The Wallowa-Whitman received thousands of comments about the draft EIS, so the pool of potential appellants is not exactly shallow.

The more important part of White's advice, though, is his recommendation that appellants make their complaints as specific as possible.

For instance, a resident who has cut firewood every year for the past decade along a road that's slated to be closed to vehicles should make that the basis for the appeal.

There's no guarantees, of course. The Forest Service isn't going to cancel the TMP if it gets more appeals from pro-motor people than from road-closure fans.

But it seems plausible that the more personal, and thus more compelling, the case that can be made for retaining motor access to particular roads, the better chance that a bureaucrat will decide that Schwalbach, in the phrase beloved of lawyers, acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in deciding to close them.