by Samantha White
A group of concerned citizens, local government officials, and agency representatives met Tuesday, June 16, at the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center to discuss forest access in relation to the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision. The relationship between the Forest Plan Revision and Travel Management Rule was also discussed during the meeting in an effort to clear up any confusion that the public might have concerning these processes.
Additionally, facilitator Jack Southworth hosted a round table discussion in which participants were given an opportunity to ask questions, provide comments, and share their greatest fears concerning forest access.
About the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires every national forest or grassland that’s managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to develop and maintain an effective land management plan (also known as a forest plan) to guide future management of natural resources for a period of approximately 10 to 15 years.
However, plans for the Blue Mountains National Forests — which include the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman national forests — haven’t been revised since 1990.
Numerous public meetings, as well as meetings with local, state, and federal agencies and tribes, have been held since the revision process began in 2004. Finally, a draft Forest Plan Revision was released in 2014.
Unfortunately, however, Malheur National Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin said, “The teacher in the class wouldn’t like the grade we got.”
He added that, of the more than 1,000 comments that were received regarding the proposed revision, the three primary points of contention were regarding access, the pace and scale of restoration, and grazing and other associated uses on the forest.
In an attempt to address these concerns, the USFS decided to take a step back and reengage the public by participating in meetings in affected communities throughout Oregon and Washington.
(Additional meetings will be held in Harney County to address the pace and scale of restoration, as well as grazing and other associated forest uses. A final meeting will provide a recap of all three topics.)
Separate, but connected
During the June 16 access meeting, USFS staff explained that the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision and travel management planning under the Travel Management Rule are both separate and interconnected processes.
Beverlin explained that, although they do not make site-specific or project-level decisions, forest plans “will set the stage for all the activities in the forest.” Thus, travel management planning must be consistent with relevant forest plans.
He added that travel management planning will not be completed on the Malheur National Forest until after the Forest Plan Revision is finished.
About the Travel Management Rule
Announced in 2005, the Travel Management Rule requires every national forest or grassland in the United States to identify and designate the roads, trails, and areas that are open to motor vehicle use.
Dennis Dougherty, Blue Mountain Revision Team recreation planner, explained that these regulations implement Executive Order 11644 “Use of Off-Road Vehicles on Public Lands” — which was issued by former President Richard Nixon Feb. 8, 1972 — and the May 24, 1977 amendment (Executive Order 11989). These executive orders direct federal agencies to ensure that the use of off-road vehicles on public lands will be controlled and directed in order to protect resources, promote the safety of all users, and minimize conflicts among the various uses on those lands.
The Travel Management Rule is divided into subparts A, B and C.
Subpart A provides an analysis of what is needed to administer and maintain road systems within the forest. Although it is not a decision document, Subpart A will be used to inform future project-level decisions and planning efforts.
Subpart B requires each national forest or ranger district to designate the roads, trails and areas that are open to motor vehicles. The designation must include the class of vehicle and, if appropriate, the time of year for motor vehicle use. Once designation is complete, motor vehicle use off the designated system (or use that is inconsistent with the designations) will be prohibited. Designation decisions will be made locally, with public input and coordination with state, local, and tribal governments. Additionally, the designations will be shown on a motor vehicle use map that can be updated annually.
Subpart C designates the roads, trails, and areas for over-snow vehicle use and applies where snowfall is adequate for that use to occur.
In March 2015, Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Jim Peña asked Beverlin and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor Tom Montoya to defer any additional work required under Subpart B of the Travel Management Rule until after the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision is complete. However, work on subparts A and C will continue.
The Umatilla National Forest already completed subpart A and B analysis.
Current road closures
Dan Haak, Oregon executive director of the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, asked why roads are being closed prior to travel management planning.
Mike Masterson said he likes to use public lands to hunt, fish and camp, and he fears road closures will prevent him from doing that.
Jon Reponen said he fears the last road to his property will be closed, and Gene Scrivner asked why roads are being closed without public input.
Beverlin replied that some roads have been closed in order to complete projects.
Emigrant Creek District Ranger Christy Cheyne added that project planning is a public process, and she encouraged interested individuals to contact her or Lori Bailey for maps detailing proposed closures.
“As we move forward with projects, I hope you’ll get a map and voice your concerns,” she said.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said many have developed a trust issue with the USFS. He clarified that the issue is not with individual staff members, but the system as a whole.
Jennie Stearns said she fears “rules are being dictated by outsiders who haven’t got a clue.”
Haak and Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels both expressed concern that mandates from Washington, D.C. will negate the efforts of small focus groups, and Runnels asked whether more weight is given to comments from people who live in the affected areas.
Blue Mountain Revision Team Leader Sabrina Stadler said the Forest Plan Revision is not a voting process, comments are given the same consideration, and deciding officers look at “the greatest good.”
However, Beverlin said more weight is given to local comments because they are generally more specific and can be used to make specific modifications to the proposed revision.
“Name specific roads. We can use that,” he said. “We desire hearing from you to add weight, substance, and agreement to our alternatives.”
Stadler agreed, stating that a comment requesting to keep all of the roads open wouldn’t be specific enough. However, a comment requesting to keep a certain road open so that people can pick berries in the fall would be considered.
Scrivner urged USFS staff to continue participating in public meetings and increase public relations efforts.
“Road closure rings a bell that sets people off,” he said, adding that he’d like agency staff to write public relations pieces explaining the implications that individual projects will have on the roads.
Haak agreed, stating that meetings regarding specific road closures would garner significant public participation, but not a lot of people are willing to attend meetings concerning plans and projects. He added that he’d like to see more young people get involved, as they are the people who will be using the forest when the plans are implemented.
Regarding the proposed rules, regulations and road closures, Cindy Grasty asked, “Does anyone take the time to consider what this does to a community?”
Beverlin replied that the USFS is hiring more people like Regional Social Scientist Lis Grinspoon to provide social and economic analysis.
Grinspoon explained that social scientists gather as much information as they can regarding peoples’ values, attitudes and beliefs concerning the forest and then strive to find an alternative that provides the most comfort to the most people while remaining in compliance with laws and regulations. She explained that this can be especially difficult considering that the people within a community can have many different ideals.
Peace and quiet
Roy Sutcliffe and Karen Nitz both said they’d like to have quiet areas where they can get away from motorized vehicle traffic.
Masterson said he isn’t against having quiet areas, but he expressed concern that his older relatives won’t be able to access the areas that they’ve been visiting for years if roads are closed to motorized travel.
Bob Stearns expressed similar concerns, stating, “I’m at an age where if you close a road, I’m not getting there.”
Sutcliffe replied, “It’s a big playground. I think there’s enough use for all of us.”
Cheyne and Beverlin both said they’d like to discuss quiet area use.
The next steps
Beverlin said efforts to complete the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision will continue, as reengagment meetings are held throughout Oregon and Washington. The revision team will collect and sift through comments in an attempt to incorporate them into the revision’s proposed alternatives.
The public is encouraged to continue the conversation by contacting the revision team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting the team’s website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/BlueMtnsPlanRevision. Stadler can also be reached by calling 541-523-1264.