Today, Oregon's Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the Forest Service to fully re-engage the public and address concerns after the Forest Service decided to "stop the clock" and withdraw the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Travel Management Plan. In a letter to Tom Tidwell, Chief of the United States Forest Service, Merkley and Wyden relayed concerns they have heard directly from constituents on the travel management plan, such as barriers on access to private land, harvest of firewood and berries, tourism effects, lack of appropriate signage, and lack of local input into the plan.
"In this area, as in many areas of our state, Forest Service lands make up a significant portion of land, and those lands are intricately connected to our culture and economy," the Senators said. "These decisions are not just matters of forest policy, but raise questions that go to the heart of these communities and their economies."
Senators Merkley and Wyden both recently held town halls in areas affected by the planned forest road closures. At the town halls, the senators listened to the concerns and committed to ensuring their comments were heard by the Forest Service.
The full text of the letter is below.
The Honorable Tom Tidwell
Chief, United States Forest Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
201 14th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Dear Chief Tidwell,
We have heard from many constituents in Oregon who have serious and legitimate concerns with the U.S. Forest Service's Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. While we understand that some roads need to be closed to protect watersheds and wildlife habitat, it has become clear that the multi-year Travel Management Plan on this forest did not adequately understand or address many concerns raised by local communities.
We applaud the Forest Service in their recent announcement to "stop the clock" and withdraw the travel management decision. This is an important first step, but it will be essential that the concerns raised by the public are heard and addressed by the Forest Service as you move forward. Below are some examples of concerns we have heard from constituents:
Individuals who own private property have expressed that they depend on certain roads slated for closure to access their own private land. These property owners will now have to apply for a permit, and sometimes multiple permits, just to access their own property. One road slated for closure, for example, accesses between 12 and 14 cabins, and those cabin owners may all require permits.
Many Eastern Oregonians collect firewood and harvest mushrooms and berries from the National Forest and depend on these activities for supplemental income. Road closures that significantly curtail these activities could have a detrimental impact on livelihoods, local economies and long-standing local traditions.
Local communities are concerned that road closures will negatively impact tourism if road closures prevent tourists from accessing their favorite sites within the National Forest. Many Oregonians travel to the National Forest for vacations from other parts of the state will not know their favorite sites are inaccessible until they arrive.
Many people have pointed out that the road closures could increase fire risk by decreasing access to parts of the national forest to fight fires, and the reduction in firewood harvesting could increase the fuel load within the forest.
The maps that have been provided to the public have been confusing to interpret and therefore it has been difficult for the public to determine which roads will be closed and which will remain open.
Roads that will be closed will not have a sign indicating they are closed, so individuals who are unaware of the Travel Management Plan could face a fine for using an unmarked road.
Many volunteers dedicated hours of their time taking an inventory of the roads, which were used by the counties and general public to help identify the most popular and utilized roads to keep open, and identify the most infrequently used roads to close. Individuals who made these recommendations say that their comments were ignored in the final Travel Management Plan.
Many individuals indicated that they attended and commented at public meetings during the initial scoping process, but their names were not recorded at those meetings. These individuals may now be prevented from submitting a formal appeal and consequently feel shut out of the process. As a result, the U.S. Forest Service has increasingly lost the trust of the communities surrounding the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Given the many concerns that have yet to be adequately addressed, we are encouraged that the decision for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Travel Management Plan has been withdrawn. We would now urge that you both fully re-engage with the public to ensure all stakeholders have an opportunity to raise their concerns, and respond to these concerns as you prepare a finalized Travel Management Plan.
Beyond the specific concerns that have been raised, the context in which these decisions are being made is very important. In this area, as in many areas of our state, Forest Service lands make up a significant portion of land, and those lands are intricately connected to our culture and economy. These decisions are not just matters of forest policy, but raise questions that go to the heart of these communities and their economies.
Thank you for your attention to this important issue.
Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden