CENTRALIA — U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, on Wednesday told community leaders she remains committed to open forest roads and preserving public access to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. At a community roundtable at the Lewis County Courthouse, Herrera Beutler solicited input from about 25 stakeholders regarding the management of federal forest roads and overall forest health.
The Forest Service must figure out how — with a downsized budget — to reduce the number of roads and trails in Gifford Pinchot from about 4,000 miles to about 1,000 miles by the year 2015.
If, as currently suggested by the Forest Service, those roads are fully decommissioned, public access would be significantly limited, according to Herrera Beutler.
"Whether for timber or recreational purposes, these roads are very important to us," she said.
The congresswoman and her staff have been in communication with the Forest Service and have encouraged the service to close the roads in a way such that, in the future, they could be reopened.
"We don't want to be at a place where it takes moving heaven and earth through a new environmental process to do that," she said.
Fully decommissioning a road is more expensive than temporary closure, according to the congresswoman.
Speaking via video chat from the Washington Counties Risk Pool Spring Conference, Lewis County Commissioner Lee Grose said he's not convinced that budget constraints are the only reason the Forest Service is decreasing road access.
The ulterior motive, according to Grose, is to close down the forest and make it into a national park.
Why else would the service spend the "phenomenal" amount of money required to decommission roads, Grose asked.
"It makes absolutely zero sense," he said.
If Gifford Pinchot was to be converted, logging and many types of recreation would be barred.
"On the one hand we've quit logging, so we don't have that revenue coming in," he said. "Now, on the other hand, we're trying to close the forest further by getting rid of more roads, so we're eliminating the tourist trade as well."
"All of us need to remember these roads were built by logging dollars," he added. "To get them to where we need them again would require more logging dollars."
Bernie Stratton, of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, said he is particularly concerned about the economic impact of the road closures.
"Recreation is a huge industry and it's being completely ignored," he said. "It directly impacts employment in East Lewis County."
"This is the part of chronic unemployment that people don't want to recognize," he added.
A federal strategy that privileged reacting over taking preventative action has led the Gifford Pinchot to this difficult situation.
"We all know timber is a renewable resource," he said, "but it was managed somewhat poorly along the way, and that's how we got to this spot."