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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Future open-ended for travel management on forest

Future open-ended for travel management on forest

Officials say they received a promise from Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach last week that key forest access issues will be addressed before a new travel management plan is developed.

Schwalbach agreed to make firewood access a priority, especially for senior citizens, according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office.

She also promised that the Forest Service will provide up-to-date and readable maps of any proposed road closures, and also pledged more robust dialogue on issues like multiple use and protection of traditional forest activities.

Schwalbach met with the Wallowa County board of commissioners Wednesday and the Union County board of commissioners Thursday.

The Thursday meeting in La Grande was attended by aides of Wyden and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Deputy Regional Forester Maureen Hyzer, Wallowa-Whitman Forest Deputy Supervisor Tom Montoya, tribal representatives and others.

Following an outpouring of criticism this spring from the public and from elected officials, Schwalbach withdrew the Forest Service’s proposed travel management plan and stopped the clock of the appeals process that was to have ended April 30.

Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson said Monday that Schwalbach told the group at the meeting the entire process is on hold for now.

“The record of decision no longer exists,” Davidson said. He said the question of the future of travel management on the forest remains an open-ended one.

“We were told no decisions have been made and more meetings will be held before the process starts again,” Davidson said.

Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Krake said today the Forest Service is committed to more talk before any decisions are made. 

“Certainly, the effect of the withdrawal allows more time for public involvement. We’ll take the time to do things right,” she said.

In 2005, the federal government’s Travel Management Rule was developed to establish consistency about where and when motorized use is permissible on national forests, and to resolve user and resource issue conflicts. The Wallowa-Whitman plan was written as a requirement of the Travel Management Rule.

Environmental concerns, including the La Grande-based Hells Canyon Preservation Council, want more road closures, saying there’s a need to improve fish and game habitat and increase roadless recreational opportunities. 

Other groups and individuals say closures have a deeply adverse impact on the timber-based economy, and unfairly restrict a host of traditional activities including camping, hiking, berry-picking, woodcutting, all-terrain vehicle-riding and more. 

The Forest Service issued its Record of Decision on the plan March 15, sparking outrage across the region. Union, Wallowa and Baker counties quickly announced they would appeal by the April 30 deadline.

Town hall meetings held by federal-elected officials including Sens. Jeff Merkley and Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden drew hundreds of people concerned about the plan. The controversy peaked April 6, when a crowd of over 1,500 showed up at a meeting organized by plan opponents.

Throughout the process, many people said they felt the Forest Service disregarded their input as the plan was drafted.

In Wallowa County during the early phase of the travel management plan project, more than 30 people drove forest roads in order to provide data for the county’s alternative to the Forest Service’s plan.

Wyden and Merkley this week sent a joint letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. The senators said they applaud Schwalbach’s decision to withdraw the plan, but at the same time, they urged the Forest Service to listen carefully to concerns raised by the local public.

“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,” the letter said.

The senators said those concerns include proposed closure of roads leading to private property, the need to get a permit to use roads leading to private property, impact on traditional uses like firewood-cutting, mushroom-harvesting and berry-picking, a possible decline in tourism, a possible increase in fire danger and more.

The senators also said the maps of proposed road closures were confusing, making it hard for the public to determine which roads were targeted for closure and which were to remain open.

Krake said the Forest Service agrees that the maps outlining the decision were not the best.

“They were a good starting point, but they needed more work,” she said.

 
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