JOHN DAY – More than 200 people packed into a Forest Service meeting room last week to hear how a federal directive will change vehicle use on the Malheur National Forest.

Malheur National Forest Supervisor Doug Gochnour stressed that the travel management process, which stems from a 2005 Forest Service directive, won’t open any new roads or close any roads that are legally open now.

However, members of the audience were clearly worried about the long-term status of their favorite roads and the future of vehicle use and tourism on the forest.

In his opening remarks, Gochnour said the Malheur is the last forest in the region, and one of the last in the nation, to start its travel management process. The process stems from a rule adopted in 2005.

He said the delay was due to his efforts to get more flexibility and discretion in the local application of the rule. That didn’t happen, he said, and so the MNF had to move forward.

The MNF plan will not affect snowmobiles or hiker, biker and equestrian travel. Gochnour said people engaged in permitted uses – mining, grazing and wood-cutting – will still be able to use the forest, and people who access their private property via forest roads will still be able to do so by motor vehicle.

Unlike some forests, the MNF is not conducting a complete review of all roads, but will roll over its existing road plan.

“We’re not closing any roads or trails,” Gochnour said. Written material handed out at the meeting said that under the proposal, the MNF will  have 5,868 miles of road open to motor vehicle travel.

However, all forests including the MNF will prohibit cross-country travel by motor vehicles. Gochnour said that change is not as large as it sounds, since driving is already restricted on about half of the forest lands, and another quarter is too steep or vegetated for driving.

“So about 25 percent of the forest is affected,” he said.

When the travel management plan goes into effect, sometime late next summer, forest users will be responsible for determining whether they are on a legal road. A map will be published to show all open roads.

Gochnour said the map will be updated annually, with revisions to show roads that may be added or deleted through the ongoing large-landscape projects.

That concerned many of those attending the meeting, who felt that guaranteed much larger restrictions on vehicle use ahead.

“It’s going to be very detrimental to our county,” said Greg Haberle of the family-owned John Day Polaris.

He said the Forest Service has been pushing recreation since the logging industry all but shut down, but the new policies will limit the region’s best recreation hopes.

He said the impact wouldn’t be just on his business, but that restaurants, stores and other businesses that service vehicles and serve tourists also will be hurt.

He called the travel management process another example of the government forgetting that “it’s our forest, it’s the public’s.”

Some in the crowd also were unhappy with the format of the meeting, which didn’t include an open question-and-answer session. After Gochnour’s review of the process, he asked people to talk instead with forest staffers stationed at information displays around the room.

“What about a Q and A?” asked Boyd Britton, as the crowd milled about. “Don’t you think that would be appropriate?”

Gochnour said later that the decision not to take questions was intentional. He said he was concerned about fostering an atmosphere in which one or two individuals could grandstand their personal views and create tension.

The meeting was intended to be informational, not a public hearing, so the staff opted for one-on-one discussions, he said.

The proposal is available online at the MNF’s website. Public comments are due Dec. 3, and a decision will be issued in April. Public comment forms are available from the MNF, and can be sent to Gochnour at the MNF, P.O. Box 909, John Day, OR 97845, or by e-mail to: Comments-pacificnorthwest-malheur@fs.fed.us.

Gochnour is retiring at the end of December, but Teresa Raaf, currently deputy supervisor, will be acting supervisor through the process. She said last week she plans to continue the direction set by Gochnour, calling for minimum change in the areas for which local discretion is allowed.

The meeting was one of two, following a session in Burns the night before that drew about 60 people.

 

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