In early March of 2019, six eastern Oregon counties submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking that the Maheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests be exempted from the 2005 Travel Planning Rule. Both forests have deferred work on Travel Management for many years; in the case of the Malheur, they haven’t worked on Travel Management since 2010, and the Wallowa-Whitman put this planning process on hold in 2012. In the meantime, every other National Forest in the country has completed the process.
This gives these two forests the distinction of being the only two forests with unregulated cross-county travel (prohibited by the Travel Management Rule). They also have some of the highest open road densities in the national forest system. According to the most recent Forest Service data, the Malheur contains 7,033 miles of open roads and 2,637 miles of closed roads, for a total of 9,670 miles of existing inventoried roads. The Wallowa-Whitman has 4,633 miles of open roads and 4,486 miles of closed roads, for a total of 9,119 miles of existing roads. For perspective, the equatorial circumference of the Earth is about 24,901 miles. If all the roads on these two forests were stretched end to end, they would be only be 6,122 miles short of encircling the planet!
Why does this matter? Unrestricted cross-county travel, excessive roads, and unmaintained roads all cause damage to soils, water quality, and wildlife habitat, in turn leading to issues such as population declines in threatened and endangered species (like bull trout and steelhead that depend on clean and cold waters), and displacing mammals (like pushing elk onto private lands). Lack of Travel Management also makes it hard to find areas of the forests undisturbed by the sounds or smells of motorized travel.
The Travel Management Rule addresses these issues by requiring the Forest Service to designate specific areas and trails as open to off-road vehicle use, with all remaining areas being closed to motorized use. Forests must also designate an open road network that minimizes damage to soil, watersheds, vegetation, and other forest resources; impacts to wildlife habitat; and conflicts among different recreational groups. The road network shouldn’t be larger than what is needed, or what the forest can pay to maintain.
The Counties justify their request, in part, based on the fact that the Forest Service has to date failed to comply with the Travel Planning. This reasoning makes no sense! Past failure to comply with the law is not a valid reason to continue to fail to comply with the law.
GHCC has been tirelessly advocating to push the Forest Service to reinitiate these processes. Since 2012 we have met numerous times with leadership at both the forest and regional level. We have collected evidence of damage to our national forests through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, working with the state agencies and the public -- and have submitted this information to the forests. We have coordinated our efforts with local, regional and national groups to ensure the pressure is being applied from multiple directions. Even though we don’t have active travel planning processes on either forest, we know that our work has pushed the agency to addresses the issue of unneeded and problem roads at the project level, and that so far, the Counties have not gotten their wish. We will continue to work hard to ensure our natural treasures are managed as required by environmental law!
For a taste of our advocacy work, check out our most recent missive to the U.S. Departure of Agriculture on the topic:
May 28, 2019
Honorable George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue III
Secretary of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Perdue,
I am writing on behalf of the Greater Hells Canyon Council to bring attention to the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests’ lack of compliance with the United States Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule, 36 C.F.R. Part 212 (Subpart B).
The Travel Management Rule was issued in November of 2005, after much public comment. The rule was adopted to address environmental harm resulting from unregulated motorized use across National Forest Service (NFS) lands. Advances in the power, range and capabilities of off-highway vehicles along with an explosion in the number of people driving motor vehicles on public lands, on and off routes, necessitated motor vehicle use to be controlled and directed. The rule was designed to protect NFS lands from damage by providing a “consistent policy” for all national forests. It required all Forest Service Units to designate motorized routes and areas for off-road use, with non-designated areas reserved for the benefit of water quality, wildlife, and quiet recreation. At the same time, the rule provided that these designations were to be made locally through a public involvement process consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. Fed. Reg. Vol. 70, No. 216 (Nov. 9, 2005); 36 CFR § 212.51; 36 CFR § 212.52.
As you may be aware, the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests in Northeastern Oregon are the only units in the National Forest System that have yet to comply with Subpart B of the Travel Management Rule. These forests also have the distinction of having some of the highest open road mileage and open road densities in the National Forest System. Not only are these forests not in compliance with the travel rule, they are not actively working to do so. The Malheur has deferred work on Subpart B since 2010, when it put its travel planning process on hold. The Wallowa-Whitman has deferred work on Subpart B since 2012, when the Forest Service withdrew its Travel Management Plan decision. This means that both forests continue to have open road densities at levels contributing to unacceptable soil erosion, water quality degradation and wildlife habitat destruction—the very issues the rule was meant to address.
In March of 2015, Jim Peña, the Regional Forester at that time for the Pacific Northwest Region, issued guidance directing both forests to defer work on Subpart B of the Travel Management Rule until after the Blue Mountains Forest Plan Revision was completed. At that time the agency anticipated the revision process would be completed in 2016. The draft decisions for the forest plans was released in 2018 and then withdrawn in March of this year. When the agency updates the current forest plans for National
Forests in the Blue Mountains they will restart the process, potentially with each forest initiating its own planning process. If the past is any indicator, this could take up to 15 years. The withdrawn Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman took six years to complete. If travel planning is put off until the forest planning process, or processes, are completed, these forests may not comply with Subpart B for decades.
The rationale for the Regional Forester’s direction to defer travel planning was to allow both the forests and the public to focus solely on completing the forest plan revisions. While having only one ongoing planning process may have been simpler for the agency, continuing to delay travel planning became a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) which requires agency actions to be completed “within a reasonable time.” 5 U.S.C. § 555(b).GHCC pointed this out in a November, 2016 letter to the Regional Forester. At this point, it has been almost 15 years since the Travel Management Rule was promulgated. All other units besides the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman have complied with the rule. Resource damage is ongoing. The longer these forests delay travel planning, the more unreasonable doing so becomes.
On March 1, 2019, six Eastern Oregon Counties submitted a Petition for USDA Rulemaking to Exempt the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National Forests from the Travel Management Rule and Related Actions. There is no rational basis to exempt these forests from the 2005 Travel Management Rule. The counties’ petition relies on the agency’s ongoing failure to comply with travel planning as a basis for exempting the forests from compliance with the Travel Management Rule. Failure to comply with the Travel Management Rule is not a valid reason to be exempt from the rule. Rather, as discussed above, this “failure to comply” illustrates the need for the forests to initiate Travel Management Planning and show ongoing progress towards completing the planning process. The petition’s other purported basis to exempt the two forests from Subpart B is the unsupported claim that doing so will result in negative socioeconomic and recreational impacts, and preclude the ability of the agency to suppress fire and conduct landscape scale restoration. These claims are baseless and conflict with conclusions made through the rulemaking process for the 2005 Travel Management Rule.
There is no rational basis for exempting the forests from travel planning and further delay is unreasonable. We request that you direct Regional Forester Glen Casamassa and the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests to resume work on Subpart B immediately. We look forward to working with the forests as they do so. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Greater Hells Canyon Council
P.O. Box 2768
La Grande, OR 97850
541-963-3950 x 701
cc: Glenn Casamassa, USFS Pacific Northwest Region Regional Forester
Tom Montoya, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Forest Supervisor
Craig Trulock, Malheur National Forest Acting Forest Supervisor
Mary Gautreaux, Office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, Deputy State Director
Kathleen Cathey, Office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, Eastern Oregon Field Representative
Jessica Keys, Office of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, Eastern Oregon Field Representative
In cases where there is no specified statutory deadline to complete an action like the Travel Management Rule, the courts have given agencies timelines deference if the agency is progressing towards the required action by holding public meetings, releasing draft NEPA documents and accepting comments. See Sierra Club v. Thomas,828 F.2d 783 (D.C. Cir. 1987) However, when an action is deferred completely, the courts have given agencies must less discretion instead giving more weight to the nature and extent of the interests prejudiced by the delay. Telecommunications Research & Action Center v. FCC, 750 F.2d 70, 77–78 (D.C. Cir.1984)