E. Oregonians oppose partial ban on motorized vehicles in forests


Wanda Ballard has racked up more than 10,000 miles in the past seven years on her four-wheeler over the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's decrepit roads and can't understand why the U.S. Forest Service thinks it's bad for the environment.

And she doesn't like a proposal to ban motorized vehicles, except snowmobiles, from about 5,000 miles of the forest's unmaintained roads.

"I don't think the ATVs are the WMDs of the forest," Ballard said. "We're not the culprits here. We all care about the forest."

The proposed ban would take effect in 2009.

She and about 150 others gathered at the National Guard armory this week to pore over maps that show the more than 2,000 roads set for closure to four-wheelers and motorcycles.

Ken Anderson, ranger for the forest's Whitman District, emphasized it is only a proposal.

"We are not anxious to do this travel management plan by ourselves," Anderson told the audience. "We know this is a topic that has a lot of interest to a lot of folks."

So forest managers want ATV riders and others to list the roads they think should remain open to them and to say why.

The possible closures came from a 2004 decision by then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

Bosworth deemed "unmanaged recreation" as a major threat to the health of national forests and ordered them to decide by 2009 where the vehicles should be allowed.

Now on just over half of the nearly 2.4 million-acre forest, motorized vehicles can go almost anywhere their riders are capable of taking them.

Trenches or barricades keep full-size vehicles off the unmaintained roads, but Forest Service officials say lax restrictions and rising ATV use has torn up roads and that water streaming across eroded ground can harm fish habitat.

And they say engine noise can frighten wildlife, disrupting seasonal migrations and birthing patterns.

Nick Myatt, the district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office, said that although ODFW officials have not finished their comments about the proposal, he thinks the agency will support it.

He said the main ODWF concern is about wildlife.

Ballard said her slow riding speed means her tires "aren't spitting fountains of dirt."

Although she acknowledged ATV use is growing, she said that during the first five years after she and her husband bought four-wheelers in 2000, they saw just 11 other riders.

She said she used to use an SUV until the 1980s when forest workers dug the trenches and set up barricades.

Buying a four-wheeler was a revelation, Ballard said. "It was like the forest was ours again."

Her husband, Tork Ballard, said about 2,300 people have signed a petition opposing further usage restrictions.

They cite an 1866 federal law stating "The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."

It was repealed in 1976 but did not cancel existing rights of way.

Ken Helgerson, Baker County's roadmaster, said the law could affect the Wallowa-Whitman's proposal if county officials concluded that any of the unmaintained roads existed, even if only as a foot path or wagon route, before the Forest Service was formed in 1905.

Some roads run through areas used by miners in the gold rush of the 1860s.

He said it is less clear whether the county could merely assert the right to travel or to allow use of motorized vehicles.

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