More wilderness proposed for Umatilla National Forest

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 4, 2014 

KENNEWICK -- Three additional areas of potential wilderness are proposed for the Umatilla National Forest in a draft long-term management plan discussed Friday night in Kennewick.

About 40 people attended a meeting to learn more about the plan to guide management in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests for the next 15 years.

The plan attempts to balance what is best for the land with both social uses -- such as hunting, camping and hiking -- and economic uses, such as grazing, said Kevin Martin, supervisor for the Umatilla National Forest.

Travel in wilderness areas is restricted to on foot or horseback and structures such as shelters cannot be built. The Forest Service is required by law to evaluate potential wilderness, but only Congress can make the designation, Martin said.

The Umatilla National Forest, a popular destination from the Tri-Cities for weekend outdoor recreation, already has 300,000 of its 1.5 million acres set aside as wilderness. That includes the Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness east of Walla Walla and the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness northeast of Pendleton.

The three proposed new areas would add 40,000 acres of wilderness. They include a bull trout spawning area in the Tucannon River southeast of Dayton and Hell Hole south of Tollgate, Oregon. The third would be the Vinegar Hill-Indian Rock Scenic Area near the John Day Wilderness.

Forest Service officials tried to balance the wishes of some people for expanded wilderness and not disrupting use, Martin said. Hell Hole, just as it sounds, is a steep area that has few visitors other than some determined hunters after the large bucks in the area.

The draft management plan proposes no closures of roads or trails designated for off-highway vehicles or snowmobiles, according to the Forest Service. It identifies areas suitable for the development of additional motorized access.

Management goals would include increasing cattle grazing, but keeping domestic sheep grazing at its already-reduced level to protect bighorn sheep.

Forest management would emphasize maintaining old trees for their scenic value, wildlife habitat and fire resistance.

Another goal is moving toward doubling the rate of restoration to promote the health of the forests, including thinning vegetation, prescribed fires and timber harvesting.

Those attending the meeting had questions and comments about access to recreation and preservation of the scenic beauty of the forests.

The proposed plan considers whether energy development should be allowed in the forests, and for Jim Peterson the answer was an adamant "no."

"I've seen what happens when the wind industry comes in," he said. "Wind farms are not suitable for forests."

Peterson has hunted, fished and camped in the Blue Mountains for 50 years, first from Richland and now from a place on the Tucannon River, he said. But now at night the flashing brilliant red lights of wind turbines are visible for 20 miles, ruining scenic vistas.

The Tollgate Trail Finders Snowmobile Club, comprised of mostly Tri-City area residents, is concerned about whether the proposed plan could lead to restrictions for their members, said Dottie Carrell.

The club grooms trails and Forest Service officials said that would not be affected. But the club questions whether it could continue to go off-trail and use open areas popular with riders for decades, Carrell said.

Lee Retterer, president of the Peak Putters of the Tri-Cities, said the four-wheel-drive club wants to continue to have access to trails in the forest areas. The proposed plan does not appear to change that much, but there is concern that there has not been more focus on motorized recreation, he said.

The proposed management plan also addresses more separation of domestic sheep and goats from bighorn sheep.

That's a problem for Curtis King, of Burbank, who spoke on behalf of the North American Packgoat Association.

Science has not shown that disease is transmitted from packgoats to bighorn sheep, making closing areas to packgoats unjustified, he said. Packgoats are low-impact animals, used by people ranging from the Boy Scouts to the elderly to carry tents, stoves and food, he said.

There are less-restrictive alternatives that could be considered to keep the domestic and wild animals from coming into contact with each other, he said.

The draft study is posted at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/BlueMtnsPlanRevision. Comments may be submitted at that website electronically or mailed to Blue Mountains Plan Revision Team, P.O. Box 907, Baker City, OR 97814.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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