Rep. Walden tells USFS to "start over"

Apr 27, 2012

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is pulling back a final decision after a highly controversial travel management plan on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in northeast Oregon drew sharp criticism from Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, who contacted Regional Forester Kent Connaughton to complain that the planning process had turned a deaf ear on local input.

“I strongly urge you to scrap the proposed Travel Management Plan on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and start over with a process that actually takes into consideration the input of eastern Oregon’s local citizens,” Walden wrote. “Despite their efforts to participate, many groups and communities feel they were largely, if not entirely, ignored by the U.S. Forest Service. This amounts to an assault on good process, the public’s ability to enjoy their natural resources, and rural traditions on public lands. That is unacceptable.”

The strongly-worded complaint did not go unheeded.

Shortly after Walden delivered his message in mid- April, Wallowa-Whitman Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach responded by issuing a public notice that the travel management plan had been “withdrawn,” and the appeal process would be suspended pending further dialog with the public.

The decision marks just one of several recent instances in which USFS has been called out by local forest users for what they claim is an agency trend of closing large numbers of roads and ignoring local input. A public hearing last month in Elko, NV, held by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, drew well over 400 people, many of whom were frustrated with USFS’s decision to close approximately 200 miles of roads on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, as well as eliminate essentially all off-road travel. Elko County has refused to recognize the plan.

After the publication of the decision for the Wallowa- Whitman travel management plan in March, Wallowa, Union, and Baker counties were positioning to appeal it. Only Walden’s intervention, and the plan’s subsequent tabling, halted the counties’ march toward a probable lawsuit.

Recent town hall meetings in northern Oregon to discuss the situation have been standing room only, packed not only with grazing permittees, but also ATV users, campers, hunters, firewood collectors, mushroomers and berry pickers, all concerned about losing access to favorite spots that many have enjoyed for years.

The affected counties were particularly frustrated by the travel plan because, for the past three years, all three counties have participated in the planning process as “cooperating agencies,” a special status often granted to local governments to help ensure that local social, economic, and cultural needs are incorporated into federal planning. Yet, according to Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson, USFS paid little attention to local concerns, focusing exclusively on wildlife management and environmental impacts, and leaving out the human element.

“I would say that our input was not fully considered,” said Davidson. “There’s 1.3 million acres in Union County, and 48 percent of it is managed by the federal government, most of it by the Forest Service. They have a serious impact on what goes on.”

Davidson was also frustrated that some of the standards USFS imposed, such as limits on road densities to benefit elk, were “arbitrary,” and not based on pertinent data.

Pat Larsen, a natural resource consultant based in Union County, seconded Davidson’s assessment. “Overall, there were huge areas [in which] they closed all access to the public, and their reason was that they were providing security for the elk,” Larsen remarked. “I just thought it was a good excuse to close the roads.”

USFS has also cited excessive stream sediment as justifying road closures, but Larsen wasn’t persuaded. “They haven’t done a sediment study out here once,” Larsen pointed out. “…The data’s just not there.”

Larsen added that although citizens are not entirely opposed to some roads being closed, they demand that road closures be backed up by sound science.

“If they’re going to close so many roads, they should have dang good reason, and data sitting on the table,” Larsen said.

Part of the problem is that USFS, like most federal agencies, is currently facing a shortage of financial and human resources due to funding cuts in Washington. According to Larsen, USFS even claimed that it was not financially able to conduct a current road inventory prior to creating the travel plan. Instead, local citizens volunteered to pull together relevant information on existing forest roads. Yet according to Larsen, specific requests to leave particular roads open to motorized use went largely unheeded.

“They issued that final [decision], it was like they never heard a word,” said Larsen. “…The people were really upset about this, because it was going to limit how we use our forest, and our opportunities up there.”

Wallowa-Whitman Forest Supervisor Schwalbach disagreed that local input was ignored, stating that “[t]heir input was taken into account,” but had to be looked at in the context of “resource drivers” like watersheds, endangered species, and wildlife management. Schwalbach also indicated that individuals who visited or called USFS to have the plan explained to them largely realized that access was not being unduly restricted.

“By far, the majority of those people were satisfied with the decision,” Walbach said.

Over the past several years, USFS has implemented new travel management plans across much of the national forest system, identifying thousands of miles of roads for permanent closure. And although many environmental activists have applauded the closures, the travel plans have proven to be widely unpopular within the rural communities adjacent to where the forests are located. Such communities often depend on grazing, agriculture, logging, and tourism—activities locals claim will be negatively affected by lack of access.

Although the Wallowa- Whitman plan has now been withdrawn, with USFS issuing renewed promises that it will address public concerns, it is still unclear how they will actually proceed. However, Schwalbach said that there are no plans to start the process from scratch.

“We don’t plan to start back at the beginning,” said Schwalbach. Rather, in the short term she hopes to add more detail to the plan maps, and will “work on clarifying those questions that were raised about access for other uses.”

Longer term, Schwalbach aims to “conduct additional public involvement on the proposal. I want people who are interested in the Wallowa-Whitman to see more clearly what these key issues are, whether it’s salmon, or elk, or firewood, and see what the agency is looking at as far as addressing these issues, and be able to comment on that. So there will be another comment period, and then based on that, we will move forward to developing a new decision.”

Representatives from the Wallowa, Union, and Baker county commissions met with the agency last week, along with Walden’s staffers, to determine a plan of action. And although no process has yet taken shape, Davidson is cautiously optimistic.

“I was encouraged that they seemed receptive to the idea of taking their time, and seriously considering substantive input from the local communities,” remarked Davidson, adding that locals should “continue to stay vigilant [and] involved.” Davidson also indicated that Union County has opted to engage USFS in the “coordination” process, taking advantage of a statutory requirement that federal agencies coordinate their planning with local land use plans.

The withdrawal of the travel plan represents a significant victory to the growing movement of county-based involvement in federal land decisions. With many county commissions beginning to test their ability to influence USFS and Bureau of Land Management planning, events on the Wallowa-Whitman will doubtless be closely watched by other counties across the West to see if revisions to the plan are substantial. Of course, it never hurts to have a congressman write a letter, either, especially one as blunt as Walden’s.

“Start over,” the congressman stated. “Put people in charge who will value the suggestions of eastern Oregon’s citizens. And then go meet with the local residents and make sure that rural Oregon’s voice is reflected in the final plan.”

Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent