The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, but even with 2.3 million acres available, a relative handful of scofflaws who fail to take advantage of this wealth of room can foul things up for everybody else.

It’s unfortunate that Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Tom Montoya banned overnight camping on 240 acres of the forest near Sumpter for the next two years, unless the order is rescinded earlier.

But it’s also a justifiable decision.

The blame lies not with Montoya but with the people who, according to reports from the public and the Forest Service, stayed in that area for as long as three or four months, in defiance of the federal rule that limits campers to 14 days in one site.

(Visitors can comply with this rule by simply moving to a new site every 14 days — even if that site is within view of their previous camp.)

Worse still, these violators left copious, and in some cases disgusting, evidence of their presence, including holes into which sewage from trailers was pumped, litter, and vehicle ruts in wetlands. The Forest Service documented much of this damage with photographs.

Forest Service officials explained the stay limit to the campers, and also issued multiple citations for the violations, but the problems persisted, said Kendall Cikanek, the Whitman District ranger.

Although it’s tempting to chastise the Forest Service for what might, at first glance, seem to be a situation of punishing the innocent for the mistakes a few miscreants, the evidence in this case doesn’t justify that criticism.

After all, the people who stayed too long and who committed the other violations were themselves keeping other, law-abiding visitors from setting up camp in that area even if they had wanted to.

Cikanek said Forest Service officials have heard from citizens who claimed the long-term campers had, in effect, driven them out of the area when they tried to camp there

And considering the presence of what a Forest Service press release refers to as “septic holes,” it seems unlikely that anybody would have chosen to pitch a tent or park a trailer nearby regardless of whether they were pressured by the violators.

Cikanek said he would rather not resort to camping bans — even temporary ones — but that the circumstances in this case warranted that rare action. He said agency officials have no intent to expand the current ban beyond the 240 acres. And Cikanek points out that even the affected area remains open for day use.

In the meantime, ideally the damaged section of public land just east of Highway 7 will recover, and will again be available for legal, and responsible, members of the public to spend the night on the land they own.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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