Forest roads should remain open to vehicles

By Observer editorial March 23, 2012 12:59 pm

About 3,800 miles of roads in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest would be closed under a new travel management plan set to take effect this summer.

Environmentalists want even more roads closed, they say, to improve fish and game habitat and increase roadless recreational opportunities.

But the proposed closure of so many forest roads has officials in Union, Wallowa and Baker counties up in arms and rightfully so.

The closures would have a negative impact on our timber and tourist-based economy and unfairly restrict many recreational activities that Northeast Oregon residents have always enjoyed such as camping, hiking, hunting, berry-picking, wood-cutting and all-terrain vehicle riding.

The Wallowa-Whitman is currently managed as an “open forest for motorized travel,” which means in most of the forest motor vehicles are allowed unless specifically prohibited.

The new plan reverses that system and would prohibit motorized cross-country travel except within 300 feet of designated open roads.

Union and Wallowa counties are appealing the plan and Baker County officials are considering doing the same.

Officials of all three counties say the plan ignores their suggestions on which forest roads could be closed and which should remain open ---- recommendations which were given to the Forest Service after citizens inventoried forest roads to determine how much motorized access was actually available. Many roads now considered open are effectively closed because they are overgrown or too poorly maintained to use.

Forest officials point out that about 4,300 miles of open motorized roads and trails would remain under the plan, which they say strives to find a balance between a “diversity of motorized and non-motorized opportunities while meeting our (Forest Service) public land stewardship responsibilities.”

Forest officials began drafting the new travel management plan in 2007 per a decree from the agency’s national office to establish consistency about where and when motorized use is permissible, and to resolve user and resource issue conflicts.

The plan has been controversial from the start, with both motorized forest users and preservationists expressing considerable concern.

Groups and individuals who have offered input on the plan previously can also appeal. Forest officials say they will consider any appeals and try to find solutions to the concerns raised.

We certainly hope so, because maintaining as much motorized access to the forest as possible is critical to our economic vitality and to the quality of life for Northeast Oregon residents who recreate in the forest.

The Forest Service should take these concerns to heart and modify the new travel management plan to keep more Wallowa-Whitman National Forest roads open.