National forest access

Six Eastern Oregon counties will deliver a letter to the head of the U.S. Forest Service seeking more local input on decisions impacting access to the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — Six Eastern Oregon counties signed a petition last week asking the U.S. Forest Service to waive the agency’s travel management planning process for the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National forests.

Mark Owens, Harney County commissioner, said county representatives hand delivered their request to Forest Service Chief Vicky Christensen during meetings of the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C. on March 1-7.

“We want the Forest Service to take travel management planning, on that scale, off the table,” Owens said. “We can handle road closures through individual projects.”

The petition, signed by commissioners in Baker, Union, Wallowa, Malheur, Grant and Harney counties, asks the Forest Service to exempt the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National forests from the 2005 “Travel Management Rule” that closes cross-country travel and roads deemed redundant, in poor condition or causing harm to fish and wildlife.

The petition says that with the abundance of heavily used motorized roads and trails within the two forests and the protections already in place, exempting the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur from the 2005 rule would uphold public values and protect rural communities from the costs of applying the rule’s restrictions and prohibitions.

Susan Roberts, chair of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association said, “Over time these two forests have had multiple road closures and access is becoming more difficult for grazers, firefighting and general access to the forest.”

State Sen. Bill Hansell represents two of the counties that signed the petition — Union and Wallowa. In a letter addressed to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, he wrote he supports the petition for the economic future of Eastern Oregon’s rural counties.

“Federal forest policies over the last three decades have devastated the economies of the once timber-dependent areas and as the local governments and citizens have struggled to diversify, the ability to access the federal lands is vital,” Hansell said.

The petition addresses a lack of consideration for the people who live in communities adjacent to the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman national forests and says the forests’ 1990 plan “adequately balances multiple-use considerations” while providing plenty of guidance for development, maintenance and management of the forests’ road systems built for timber management, recreation, forest administration and resource protection.

Donna Beverage, chair of the Union County Commission, said the counties aren’t asking for new roads or money to maintain existing roads, but to allow the counties to be involved when road closures are included in forest project planning.

“We want decisions to be made on a case-by-case level and let local people be part of those decisions,” Beverage said.

Another concern the commissioners raised addresses fire suppression and prevention. The petition said closing roads will make safe access to “strategic and defensible firefighting areas” more difficult and “will impede the Forest Service’s ability to effectively treat and manage the landscape in a manner that effectively reduces the risk for catastrophic wildfire.”

Beverage said accessing fires on the forest isn’t just about unlocking gates to roads closed to the public, but some are closed with a dirt berm.

“Sometimes you can’t just open a gate, you have to take a bulldozer and clean the road out to fight the fire,” Beverage said.

In Wallowa County, home of three wilderness areas — Hells Canyon, Eagle Cap and Wenaha — as well as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, the commissioners worry about the increasing the roadless footprint of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

“Not everybody is 22 years old and gallivanting on foot into the Eagle Cap,” Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash said. “It’s important to us culturally that people young and old can go enjoy the forest.”

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