BAKER CITY – Bowing to mounting criticism about the confusion wrought by its recently released Travel Management Plan, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest on Tuesday withdrew the decision.
The withdrawal, announced in a letter from WWNF Supervisor Monica Schwalbach, acknowledged that the move was effectively terminating the TMP appeals process mid-stream. Wallowa County and scores of private citizens who also opposed the plan were in recent days hurrying to complete their appeals, which were due on April 30.
“It has been one month since the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest released its travel management decision,” Schwalbach wrote. “Since then, there has been considerable public interest and debate over various aspects of the plan. As I have listened to the many people who are commenting on the plan, it has become apparent that there is a good bit of confusion, as well as some concerns that would benefit from more discussion.
“Because of these concerns I have decided to withdraw the travel management decision, and stop the clock on the appeal process that is underway,” the forest supervisor wrote.
Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward said Schwalbach had personally notified him of the TMP decision's withdrawal. He welcomed the development.
“I think it's a very positive step,” Hayward said. “We were preparing an appeal based on what we felt were inadequacies in the document and the [Environmental Impact Statement].”
Hayward said Schwalbach conveyed to him that the Forest Service wanted “to bring together the parties... and see if some or all of the areas of expressed concern can be worked through.”
Schwalbach's letter presented no new timeline for the TMP, and Hayward said the forest supervisor didn't discuss this with him either. He cautioned that the travel planning process was certainly not over, however. “The concept's not going away,” Hayward said.
Hayward added that he was encouraged, though, that the Forest Service was at least acknowledging some of the issues that were so troubling to forest users. “The plan as it currently stood had some inherent problems,” he said.
Schwalbach's April 17 letter listed various issues prompting her decision, among them:
• Unclear interpretations of road miles.
• Mapping that lacked detail.
• Concerns about access to firewood.
• Misunderstandings and concerns about access to private and permitted lands that is allowed under the TMP.
“These are all important concerns and I appreciate the people who are raising them. I also think the agency has a responsibility to address these concerns, including clarifying misinformation, providing more specific information to the public as requested, and engaging in further dialogue,” Schwalbach wrote.
Her letter concluded, “I truly appreciate the passion that has been shown in response to this decision, and want to encourage everyone to direct this passion in a positive, productive and respectful way. I encourage anyone who has additional suggestions to share them with me or one of our local district rangers. The Wallowa-Whitman national forest is treasured by all, so let’s be sure we develop a plan that is reasonable, responsible, and makes sense now and for the future.”
Editor's note: A PDF of Schwalbach's April 17 letter is posted next to this article.