By Casey Crowley

Baker County has joined five other counties in Eastern Oregon in petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests from the 2005 Travel Management Rule.

That’s the rule that could lead the Forest Service to banning motor vehicles from thousands of miles of roads on the two national forests, a possibility that has prompted widespread protests in Baker County over the past decade.

Baker County commissioners voted Wednesday to join the petition.

The document is scheduled to be hand delivered to federal officials on March 2 in Washington, D.C. The other five counties listed on the petition are Union, Harney, Grant, Malheur and Wallowa.

The Forest Service is an agency of the Agriculture Department.

The petition asks the department to exempt the two national forests from the Travel Management Rule based on the Administrative Procedures Act, which allows federal agencies to change a policy.

The petition says that the 2005 Plan and any additional travel regulations would “only harm local communities, county residents and recreational opportunities, while offering no tangible resource benefits.”

If the Agriculture Department approved the petition, the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests would continue to operate under their 19 90 travel plans, which state that “the development, maintenance and management of the Forest development road system is to be continued as needed to respond to resource management objectives.”

Although the federal travel rule dates to 2005, it wasn’t until the spring of 2007 that the Wallowa-Whitman started working on a Travel Management Plan for the 2.3-million-acre national forest, which has its headquarters in Baker City.

The basic concept is that each national forest must create a plan that designates which roads and trails are open to motor vehicles. All other routes are closed to motor vehicles, although the 2005 rule doesn’t include snowmobiles.

Many local residents have advocated since 2007 that the Wallowa-Whitman should retain its current “open” forest in which roads are open to motor vehicles unless designated as closed.

In March 2012 the Wallowa-Whitman unveiled a Travel Management Plan that called for banning motor vehicles on about 3,000 miles of roads on the forest.

That provoked widespread opposition, including by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and the Wallowa-Whitman withdrew the plan a month later.

County Commission Chairman Bill Harvey said the petition was months in the making as officials from the six counties worked together. The petition was written with help from lawyers in Harney County. Baker, Harney and Wallowa County were the counties most involved creating the petition, Harvey said.

Presenting the petition to the Agriculture Department is part of the reason Harvey is traveling to Washington, D.C., in early March. Harvey plans to discuss the petition and the Blue Mountain Forest Plan with officials from the Forest Service, as well as other federal land management issues with representatives from the BLM.

In addition to referencing the economic effects of road closures, the petition contends that the Travel Management Rule could make it more difficult for the Forest Service to fight wildfires.

Wallowa-Whitman officials have said they will resume work on the Travel Management Plan once the Blue Mountain Forest Plan revision process is finished.

That process is still pending, and it was slowed by the 34-day federal government shutdown earlier this winter.

The Forest Service is still reviewing comments it received about the revised forest plans during a series of “objection” meetings late last year.

The counties’ petition references sections in the revised forest plans.

“Taken as whole, these broad statements make it clear that some level of travel management restrictions may take place in the future,” the petition states.

The third national forest in the Blue Mountains — the Umatilla — already has a Travel Management Plan that designates which roads and trails are open to motor vehicles.