- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

ENTERPRISE, Ore. (AP) — The Nez Perce Trail running from Wallowa Lake to 40 miles from the Canadian border in Montana commemorates the months-long flight for freedom of Chief Joseph and his people. This fall, the U.S. Forest Service invites public comment on the siting of the 1,700-mile trail.

Sandy McFarland, administrator for the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, from Orofino, Idaho, said the trail’s comprehensive plan is under revision, and she and her team are meeting with communities all along the trail to get input on the trail’s location.

She said the trail, including associated sites and auto tours, crosses a mix of local, county, state, federal and tribal jurisdictions, but is administered by the Forest Service.

“In the 1950s, the Nez Perce began to protect the trail and it was added to the National Trails System in 1986,” McFarland said.

The trail starts roughly near Wallowa Lake and winds down the Imnaha River to the Snake River at Dug Bar. Chief Joseph, along with Chiefs White Bird and Lookingglass, led 750 people along a circuitous route in an attempt to escape the U.S. Army’s pursuit. They fought battles at White Bird, Idaho, Big Hole, Montana, and Bear’s Paw, Montana, before surrendering.

Julie Molzahn, the comprehensive plan coordinator, said in 1976 a study to include the trail into the national historic trail system was authorized. In 1981, an environmental assessment began and in 1986 it was included in the system.

The comprehensive plan is now under revision and public interest has increased since its inception. Developments such as energy development, cell towers, urban interface and new recreation activities impact the trail, Molzahn said.

“We can include sites off the auto tour or trail as well that are significant to the tribe,” Molzahn said.

Some of those identified are as far away as Baxter Springs, Kansas, and Fort Vancouver, Washington, and even Yellowstone National Park where the tribe camped.

“We want a consistent message on the trail,” Molzahn said.

The trail is on federal, state and locally managed public and private land. Molzahn said this requires a coordinated effort among states and local communities.

Little sites like the Joseph Canyon Overview and Dug Bar as well as battle sites like Bear’s Paw are all included - crossing not only 11 national forests, but Bureau of Land Management-managed areas and U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges.

Molzahn said in 2006, the trails group reviewed plans and decided it was not meeting standards.

“An interagency review and a regional review of this plan indicate that it is no longer compliant and the 1985 environmental assessment is no longer valid,” Molzahn said.

In 2001, the first round of public meetings was held.

“One thing we heard was tourism is important. It brings in people to follow the historic trail,” said Molzahn.

The revision seeks to enhance compliance with the law and the trail’s future condition along with 3,000 miles of auto tour and associated trails used by the Nez Perce Tribe. Within five years of the revised plan the identified corridor will be marked on the ground in accordance with all the standard processes adopted, said Molzahn.

Yet the trail does not have to be literal. Molzahn said the Forest Service is working with private landowners and it can be relocated to better places when necessary.

“The line on the map can be moved around,” Molzahn said.

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Information from: The (La Grande) Observer, http://www.lagrandeobserver.com/

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