Around 40 people gathered in a circle Wednesday evening, sharing thoughts on the future of the Umatilla National Forest — kind of like they were sitting around a campfire.
The meeting, hosted by the U.S. Forest Service at the Reach center in Richland, was intended as a way to get comment on a final management plan for the Blue Mountain forests. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters, environmentalists and firefighters spoke about the future of the forests.
A draft plan proposes three new wilderness areas in the forest totaling 40,000 acres. Travel in wilderness areas is restricted to foot or horseback, and structures such as shelters cannot be built.
The Forest Service received more than 1,000 letters on the plan, officials said.
Burbank’s Curtis King, who raises pack goats, denounced plans to remove the goats from the forest because they are considered a threat to transmit diseases to bighorn sheep. He said there is zero chance of that happening.
“My fear is that once those doors close, they will never reopen,” he said.
Many of the speakers were off-road vehicle drivers. One audience member said he has seen people, who are not part of organized clubs, riding in lush meadows, down creeks and up mountain slopes.
“They really speak bad to people who are part of these organizations and are trying to do their best,” said Mike Denny with the Blue Mountain Audubon Society.
Lee Retterer, president of the Tri-Cities Peak Putters, said no one who does that would be allowed in his group.
“That makes us sick,” he said. “We don’t like to see it. We enforce what we can ... The point is we need more enforcement.”
Of more concern to firefighter Lance Greenwood is the potential for access to the wilderness to be blocked in case of fires. He said that causes fires to be battled from aircraft, which is nearly impossible.
“When you shut down roads, you endanger our lives,” he said.
People need to work together on the forest, said John Cox, a Native American tribe member from Richland.
“From the introductions, this was a meeting of special interests,” he said. “This forest is for everybody.”
The Forest Service is required by law to evaluate potential wilderness, but only Congress can make the designations. Officials from the offices of Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, were at the meeting to listen to concerns.
The meeting in Richland is one of six the Forest Service has scheduled in Washington and Oregon. The agency will analyze input and compare it against a range of alternatives from an environmental study to look for new ideas and solutions.