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Wallowa-Whitman backs off big road closure

Officials rethink vehicle ban on 3,600 miles of roads

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Forest officials on Tuesday stopped a plan to close thousands of miles of roads in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest after a public uproar over the proposed move in Eastern Oregon.

Northwest Regional Forester Kent Connaughton pulled the travel management plan that was released last month.

Wallowa-Whitman Forest Supervisor Minica J. Schwalbach said in a letter there was lots of confusion over the closures and taking more time to consider the issues will produce a better plan.

Faced with an explosion of off-road vehicles scaring wildlife and causing erosion, the Forest Service in 2005 began a nationwide look at which roads to close and keep open.

The Wallowa-Whitman proposal called for closing 3,600 miles of roads.

“Despite their efforts to participate, many groups and communities feel they were largely, if not entirely, ignored by the U.S. Forest Service,” U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., wrote. “This amounts to an assault on good process and the public’s ability to enjoy their natural resources. That is unacceptable.”

Walden praised the decision to restart the process, urging the Forest Service to give greater consideration to the desires of the public.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also praised the Forest Service for reconsidering.

“Today’s decision by the Forest Service recognizes the importance of rural Oregonians and demonstrates that their voices have been heard,” Wyden said in a statement. “As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, it became very clear to me during meetings last week in the communities that surround the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest that the government’s handling of road closures left many residents of Wallowa, Union, Baker and Malheur counties feeling that they had not been treated fairly and that their way of life was being jeopardized.”

Schwalbach wrote that there are 9,000 miles of roads on the forest, but many are overgrown and impassable, leaving about 4,700 miles considered open to the public.

The forest covers 2.4 million acres, but the travel plan considered only 1.3 million acres.

She said maps the Forest Service provided at public meetings were not detailed enough to offer a good understanding of the decision.

She added that private landowners would still have access to their cabins, miners to their claims, and ranchers to grazing allotments.

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