By now, just about anyone with any interest in developments on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is aware that the W-WNF has undergone an abrupt switch in leadership. Monica Schwalbach, the forest supervisor whose unpopularity soared upon release, back in March, of the forest’s now-defunct travel management plan, was brushed aside a couple of weeks ago.

Higher-ranking Forest Service officials, in a desperate bid to more fully reboot the travel management planning process, complete with a hoped-for second chance to win over the perpetually agitated forest-using public, reassigned Schwalbach while welcoming in Kevin Martin, a longer-tenured supervisor from the neighboring Umatilla National Forest.

Martin, who assumes an interim role at the W-WNF while someone steps in for him at the Umatilla, has gotten promptly to work on the public relations front, postponing new TMP meetings until he can lay some vital PR groundwork. Toward this end, a series of agendaless “meet-and-greet” gatherings included a two-hour public appearance Tuesday at Enterprise’s Cloverleaf Hall, and Martin’s recent itinerary also included meetings with W-WNF counties’ respective boards of commissioners.

Yes, Martin and his deputies are making a concerted effort to create a new public atmosphere, one they hope can engender at least some amount of trust, however little, in a community of users that went from wariness to full-scale rebellion over a process that didn’t appear to ever treat their input with sincerity. After a forest roads inventory that county-level volunteers had compiled over countless hours seemed to draw but scant use from USFS planners, people began to wonder if their hundreds of public comments had likewise failed to connect with any consciousness within the agency. The most jaded longtime observers wondered aloud whether the Forest Service knew where it had the comments stashed.

We now know that the situation with the old comments isn’t quite as bad as some had feared. The Forest Sevice can indeed lay hands upon them. We may also expect that hitherto-underappreciated inventory work will suddenly find a more prominent place in planners’ toolkit.

It’s good that the forest’s new leadership is interested in repairing damage from past slights, perceived or real. Beyond applying these little bandages, though, the new supervisor, like the person he replaced, is rather powerless to address the fundamental problem afflicting travel management. It’s the belief, increasingly widespread among the public, that public input is gathered mainly as a matter of form, and that input disagreeing with planners’ predetermined outcomes will go largely by the boards.

In a group e-mail, Bates resident John George summarizes the attitude. He warns that “listening” to the public and “hearing” it “are two completely different things.”

And, for local communities, more open and friendly communications from a Forest Service bent upon implementing hated closures of roads can hardly make those closures more palatable. So the next travel management decision, when it comes, is likely to smart just as much as the one before. “We know why the previous Supervisor made it,” writes George. “[W]e know why the current one will make it. Their decision is based on a failed piece of legislation that community after community in the West has told the Forest Service and their ‘elected’ representatives is junk and they keep ramming it down our throats anyways.”

-RR

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