Travel plan will specify forest routes

USFS-boxBy Marcy Stamper

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a new Motorized Travel Management plan that could change where people can drive vehicles throughout the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The draft environmental assessment released Wednesday (June 8) includes four alternatives, from no action (keeping things as is), through opening routes for wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs), to restricted vehicle access to dispersed campsites.

The biggest change would limit vehicle use to officially designated roads, replacing the current policy that allows motor vehicle access, including cross-country use, throughout the entire forest, according to Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District and project team leader for the update.

This change would reduce the area open to vehicles from the current 2.6 million acres (alternative A, no-action) to only 33 acres in all three new alternatives (B, C and D), according to a Forest Service summary. Miles of roads open to vehicles would drop from the current 7,923 to 5,366 in the three new alternatives.

The Forest Service has chosen B as its preferred alternative. That alternative “strikes a balance that continues to provide motorized access to National Forest System roads and trails while sustaining the health of National Forest lands and resources including soil, water quality and wildlife habitat,” according to an agency press release.

Although the 400-page draft environmental assessment is a wonky document that even Zbyszewski calls “overwhelming, like a really long, boring novel,” it will be welcomed by user groups eager for clarifications about vehicle access in the forest.

Alternatives B and D would reinstate six loops for WATVs — a total of 350 miles — that were briefly opened on two separate occasions, only to be closed again after conservation groups successfully argued that the Forest Service was required to do the road analysis before allowing any new vehicle use.

Earlier directive

While the no-action alternative is required by law, continuing to permit cross-country travel is not really an option, since a rule closing all areas to vehicles was adopted nationwide in 2005, with 10 years for forests to comply, said Zbyszewski. The Okanogan-Wenatchee is one of the last forests in the country to come into compliance with that directive.

The other major change in the proposed travel plan affects vehicular access to dispersed campsites. While these campsites will still be open to campers, under alternatives B and C, the Forest Service will establish “corridors” only to certain campsites.

In all the new alternatives (B, C and D) people would not be permitted to drive a vehicle more than 300 feet from an established Forest Service road nor within 100 feet of any body of water, said Zbyszewski.

Alternative C reduces vehicle access to campsites further by excluding areas with sensitive habitat for endangered fish. That change would mean that virtually all dispersed campsites along the Chewuch River and Eightmile Creek would be off-limits to vehicles, but people could still drive on the established corridor and then walk the rest of the way.

“We want to strike a balance between dispersed camping and minimizing the impact to critical fish habitat and riparian areas,” said Zbyszewski.

Some alternatives restrict access further because there would be no actual corridor; people would need to park near the road and then walk.

There would be no vehicle access to the few dispersed campsites along the Twisp River because they are all too close to the river, said Zbyszewski.

“What would be most helpful for us would be for people to be specific about campsites and roads. We want to know which campsites are most important to people,” she said.

Eliminated roads

The new plan would also eliminate unofficial roads that have been created over the years by users. These roads will not necessarily be barricaded, but they will not appear on the final map. It will be the responsibility of motorists to check the paper map — or a new smartphone app — to see if it is authorized for vehicle travel. Once downloaded, the app, which will have a dot showing the user’s location, will work even in remote areas, said Zbyszewski.

The product of the travel management plan will be a new motor vehicle use map, often called an MVUM, that shows every official road in the forest.

The four alternatives are for the entire Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and are not broken down by ranger district, but people will be able to see changes to areas they use by consulting the accompanying map. Zbyszewski encouraged people to contact her for help interpreting the map and the proposed changes.

Updating the road plan and map is separate from the forest’s trail management review, which was postponed last year to prevent further delay in this road update, which began more than 10 years ago.

Individual ranger districts will resume their trail review, possibly later this year, said Zbyszewski. The forest has many different types of trails — for hikers, horses, single- and dual-track (motorcycles and off-road vehicles) and Jeeps. There are no changes to trails in this draft.

Input on the draft document will be incorporated into a final environmental assessment that is expected by the end of September. The new map should be available by the time the snow melts in 2017, said Zbyszewski.