Federal Forest Feud: Public Land Use Advocates Clash with Officials Over Access

By on Thursday, September 14th, 2023 in More Top Stories Northeastern Oregon News

BAKER CITY — Long-simmering disputes between citizens and the government in Eastern Oregon are as eclectic and common as the rugged landscape of this region.

One of the more contentious issues revolves around access to public forests, which are managed by government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service.

Many in local communities have voiced a range of concerns and frustrations regarding the Forest Service’s public land management practices, especially its restrictions on public use, including the closure of roads to motorized vehicles. 

One group says its leading the charge to fight for what they call “original rights” is Forest Access for All. 

“We defend the rights that we’ve had since Oregon was a territory, free reign where we go and utilize the forests which are public lands,” says Bill Harvey, a group member and former Baker County Commissioner. “A couple decades ago the Forest Service began closing off sections of the forest and that’s when Forest Access for All was formed.”

Harvey says many citizens rely on motorized vehicles to access remote areas for recreational activities, such as hunting, fishing, and off-roading. Road closures limit their ability to enjoy these activities and access public lands.

“A lot of elderly people still historically go berry picking, mushroom picking, things like that, and they can’t just go hike across the mountainside,” says Harvey.

Critics argue that motorized vehicle use can harm ecosystems and wildlife habitats, and they believe the Forest Service’s restrictions are necessary to protect the environment.

Harvey says his group’s particular ire is at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (WWNF), which he claims “have closed thousands of miles of roads in the forest the last twenty years.”

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is introducing a new forest revision plan this year and has been holding open houses across eastern Oregon for public comment.

Harvey says the WWNF plans to close “thousands of more miles of roads and shut off public access.”

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest did not respond for comment when asked by Elkhorn Media Group.

He says not only shutting off access to roads is a detriment, but that not allowing forest thinning and/or logging operations increases the chance of wildfires.

“Environmentalism is a misused name because now environmentalists advocate for no use of any forest, just lock it up,” says Harvey. “ They have no idea how much devastation we suffer every year because we do not get out of the forest and cut trees, thin trees, keep roads open, keep access open and take care of the forest.

Harvey says other conflicts the group have with forest officials include:

Economic Impact: Businesses in rural areas often depend on outdoor recreation and tourism. Restrictions on motorized vehicle access can negatively affect the local economy by reducing visitor numbers and spending.

Land Use Conflicts: There are conflicting views on how public lands should be managed, with some advocating for conservation and preservation, while others emphasize resource extraction and recreational access. This leads to disputes over the Forest Service’s management decisions.

Community Engagement: Some citizens feel that the Forest Service does not adequately involve local communities in decision-making processes, leading to a sense of disenfranchisement and frustration.

Forest Access for All is holding a public meeting to discuss the new forest revision plan on Thursday, September 14 at 5:30pm at the OTEC Meeting Hall in Baker City.

“By law right now, we have an open forest. They will admit it, everybody admits it, and it’s in the books, I’ve seen it a million times. It is an open access forest,” says Harvey. “Why in God’s name would we want to give that up? Nothing benefits us to give up our rights that we have currently. We’re not asking for more rights, we’re asking for the existing rights to stay in place.