Plan to curb vehicles in Eastern Oregon forest draws complaints


Orders from headquarters to control traffic in the federal woods have riled people who want to continue using their cars, motorcycles, pickups and off-road vehicles in much of Oregon's largest national forest, the Wallowa-Whitman.

"I'm pretty bitter about it," said retired businessman and fisherman Gene Erwin, 78, of La Grande. "We pay them to maintain the national forest, so what do they do? They kick us out of it."

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth sought to control an explosion in "unmanaged recreation," said Dan Ermovick, a recreation manager for the district. The agency proposed vehicle regulations in July 2004 and last year approved a schedule for implementing the rules.

The idea has caused controversy in some forests, though not all.

In the Umatilla National Forest, travel restrictions were already in place. Its policy closed all forest roads except those designated as open. In the Wallowa-Whitman, all roads are open unless designated closed.

On the Wallowa-Whitman, a six-month public comment period closed Nov. 16 after triggering 1,500 e-mails and 500 letters, as well as petitions, telephone calls and even billboards, Ermovick said.

A team will assemble a set of Forest Service alternatives to its original proposal by June, he said. Officials say it may be 2010 before new rules go into effect.

The proposal calls for banning virtually all motorized traffic from more than 4,200 miles of the 9,000 miles of roads in the forest in Eastern Oregon.

About 3,000 miles of road would remain open to ATVs, and snowmobile use would continue.

Agency officials say curbing ATVs would reduce silting of streams and damage to fish habitat and harassment of elk herds.

Larry McLaud of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council said road construction in the 1970s and '80s left the Wallowa-Whitman with more logging roads than necessary. ATV impacts on wildlife and anadromous fish are sometimes severe, he said.

But 65-year-old Larry Cribbs of La Grande said he and his wife have seen no abuses during years of riding ATVs an average of 2,500 miles a year each on national forest roads. They seldom come across other ATVs, he said.

"They say ATVs are tearing up the world. I see no evidence of it," he said.

Ermovick said full-size motor vehicles have been prohibited on many of the roads proposed for closure to ATVs since the early 1990s, but they are not marked or gated so many visitors have been driving on them.

Rancher Jan Kerns, chairwoman of a local committee, said the group wants to find a middle ground: closing dozens of old logging spur roads, reopening others and some ATV roads, and keeping open some access to huckleberry and mushroom gathering areas and firewood cutting sites.

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