July 06, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Spring has turned into summer in Hells Canyon, and the hikers, backpackers and campers are replacing the herds of cattle that spend winter within the warmth of the canyons walls.

A year has gone by since the future use of Americas deepest gorge was the topic of discussion by ranchers, environmentalists, and recreation enthusiasts, as the Forest Service prepared the required comprehensive management plan.

The plan that governs the uses within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was scheduled to be completed some time this year. It is still unfinished and no date for its release has been announced.

We expect the plan to be finished by next spring (2002), said Elaine Kohrman, leader of the team developing the plan.

Completing a biological assessment on the canyon has been a problem, said Bob Mason, consultation leader.

Listed plants are a big issue with this project, Mason said. We have at least one listed, MacFarlanes Four Oclock, and we may have more.

Plant analysis stopped when the botanist working on the plan was transferred to another assignment about three months ago.

We cant finish the biological assessment until we get somebody, Mason said. I dont know when well get somebody.

Along with continuing work on the new management plan, the Forest Service will celebrate the first 25 years of the Hells Canyon Recreation Area with an event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 14, at the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center grounds in Enterprise.

The event, open to the public, will feature representatives from the Forest Service chiefs office and from congressional districts in Oregon and Idaho. The names of those participating have not been released.

During the celebration, the Forest Service will honor the Hells Canyon All-American Road, a 225-mile road going from La Grande to Joseph and from Joseph to Oxbow and Halfway and on to Baker City.

A second celebration has been scheduled for Aug. 24 at Buckhorn by the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, a private, non-profit conservation organization headquartered in La Grande.

The canyons National Recreation Area was established by Congress Dec. 31, 1975, and the dedication ceremony took place the following summer at Hat Point Overlook.

The 652,488-acre National Recreation Area lies primarily within Wallowa County, although parts of the area are within Baker County and Nez Perce and Adams counties in Idaho.

Hells Canyon is popular with boaters, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts, but it is also home to several ranches, and cattle winter near the Imnaha and Snake rivers.

Three proposals regarding future management were discussed during several public sessions in 2000, with environmentalists, Wallowa County and the Forest Service offering separate plans.

In addition to addressing sensitive plant species, the plan will address the listed fish, including coho salmon, fall-spring-summer Chinook, steelhead and bull trout. Mason said analysis of the listed fish have been drafted.

The plan must consider bald eagle issues and the quality of high-elevation habitat for the endangered lynx.