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Crossroads in the Ochoco National Forest 

The Ochoco Summit Trail proposal

Ochoco National Forest. Photos by Jim Davis, desertdustimages.blogspot.com.

Ochoco National Forest. Photos by Jim Davis, desertdustimages.blogspot.com.

Few things stir more controversy than proposing a new trail system for off-highway vehicle (OHV) travel in a national forest. The proposed 130-mile Summit Trail in the 850,000-acre Ochoco National Forest, an hour's drive east of Bend, is one such proposal that has met mixed response. The arguments for and against the proposed trail for OHV use are coming to a head with a "record of decision" by the Forest Service expected later this year. OHVs include quads, motorbikes, side-by-sides and Jeeps.

Arguments: Pro & Con

Larry Ulrich is president of the Ochoco Trail Riders, an OHV club that favors the proposed Summit Trail. "There's only one trail in the Ochocos, the Green Mountain trail, which is only eight miles long," he says. "Since travel management began, you can't ride cross-country anymore. There used to be a lot of roads on which you could ride that have been closed." He maintains that if travel management dictates road closures, the U.S. Forest Service needs to establish a trail system for OHV riders.

Patrick Lair, the public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest, says "Off-highway vehicles are a legal and valid use on federal lands as long as they're used in a legal and appropriate way." Prior to the Travel Management Rule of 2005 there were few places OHV users couldn't ride except for wilderness areas where no motorized travel is allowed. "Our goal is to manage motorized recreation in a way that's sustainable, responsible to our resources, and fair to the public," Lair says, adding that many people enjoy recreating on OHVs. Travel management forced the Forest Service to restrict OHV travel to mixed-use roads currently shared by cars and trucks.

Sarah Cuddy of the conservation organization Oregon Wild says there is no need for an additional trail system in the Ochocos. Oregon Wild is working to protect the state's many backcountry areas and would like to see a large National Recreation Area with additional wilderness areas to protect the region's sensitive habitat, including old growth Ponderosa stands and hundreds of species of plants. The proposal has been met with strong opposition by Prineville area residents, including county commissioners concerned about federal government over-reach.

Cuddy notes that there are more than 9,000 miles of mixed-use, open roads available in the Ochoco and the Deschutes National Forests for OHV use. "OHV users have plenty of access in the Ochocos and throughout Central Oregon without this additional trail system," she says.

Ulrich says the mixed use roads are too restrictive to OHV riders in the Ochocos because the Forest Service has closed many connecting roads, making it difficult for riders to travel longer distances without having to trailer their vehicles. A trail system would connect the roads for a better OHV experience, he says.

Habitat Damage

The Forest Service and Ochoco Trail Riders concur that because there is no formal trail system in the Ochocos, riders sometime leave designated roads and travel illegally cross country, damaging habitat. There are 700 miles of currently illegal trails acknowledged within the proposed Ochoco Summit Trail System Project's Final Environmental Impact Statement, according to Cuddy. "Illegal OHV trails and abuse are rampant throughout the forest, she says. "This illegal activity warrants enforcement of existing trails, not building an additional trail system."

Lair doesn't disagree. "There have been motorized vehicle users driving both legal and non-street legal vehicles, which have negatively impacted resources," he explains. The Forest Service receives complaints from the public about resource damage caused by OHVs tearing up meadows or drainages with user-created routes, he says.

The proposed trail system could cause adverse effects on wildlife and degradation of the water quality of the north fork of the Crooked River watershed, according to Oregon Wild.

Lair says that a formal trail system would help minimize illegal travel and habitat damage. "The Forest Service believes that providing OHV recreationists a sustainable and enjoyable system to ride will help to alleviate these problems because riders won't need to create their own opportunities, and law enforcement officials will have authorized routes to redirect them to," he says. The Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grasslands have only one law enforcement officer, making enforcement an issue.

"Rewarding a user group that continues to break the rules with an additional playground doesn't seem like the appropriate option," says Cuddy.

The Hunting & Fishing Perspective

The Forest Service's Starkey Experimental Research Station near La Grande shows motorized travel's negative impact on elk migration. In 2014, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist Greg Jackle appeared at a meeting on the Summit Trail and stated there is a direct correlation between road densities and disturbances to elk populations, specifically in the Ochoco management unit. "The lower the miles of road density, he says, generally the better it is for elk. The higher that number, you won't see elk using the area." Jackle adds that if the Summit Trail is built, elk will avoid the area for a longer duration and seek refuge on private land, where hunters are often barred from hunting by owners. Ranchers also complain of crop damage by elk. Jackle also disagrees with the Forest Service's contention that building the trail will result in less illegal off-road use. "There are many roads that are closed on paper, but being driven on with very little law enforcement," he says. "I have little faith that the Forest Service will be able to curtail illegal operation and creation of illegal trails outside of the authorized area."

The national forest has been a popular elk hunting destination for generations of Oregonians. Richard Nelson of the Bend Chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association says there's "no question" that illegal OHV cross country travel drives elk away from the forest and points to one popular hunting unit—unit 37—as an example. In the 1990s, he says, hunters could get up to 2,000 tags to hunt elk there. Today, he says that number has dwindled to around 440. He blames road densities and illegal OHV travel for that trend.

Retired ODFW fish biologist Amy Stuart says if the Summit Trail is built, there will be severe consequences to native redband trout. Stuart has filed a 42-page objection to the trail system. She was the Ochoco district biologist from 1990 to 1997. "Adding this proposed OHV trail will further compromise native redband trout habitat and populations that are already at risk." Stuart says the OHV system would change runoff patterns, increase sediment smothering fish eggs and lead to higher mortality rates. "Further population sampling by ODFW biologists from the late 1990s to 2012 have documented declines of redband trout populations in streams of up to three to five fold," she states. "Watersheds that have OHV use have generally higher percentages of sand and fine sediments in streams, all of which are characteristics of degraded stream quality."

The Future

Crook County, where much of the national forest is located, is the second fastest growing county in the state, second only to Deschutes County. Census forecasts by Portland State University indicate that Central's Oregon's populations will more than double in the next 50 years, creating more pressure on public lands. The forest is at a crossroads. "We have an opportunity with the Ochocos to create a proactive and thoughtful recreation plan," says Cuddy, "or we can put OHV trails through prime elk habitat and wonder later what went wrong."

Nelson, with the Oregon Hunters Association, thinks it likely that OHV riders will use the Ochoco Summit Trail proposal as justification to continue expansion in other areas. "OHV users are never going to be satisfied. The Summit Trail would be a foot in the door for more expansion," he says.

The Summit Trail proposal is now in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service, which began developing the project in 2009. In 2014 the Forest Service issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement and a Draft Record of Decision, which were withdrawn following a forest fire. The most recent proposal includes 130 miles for OHV Class I, II, and III off-highway vehicles, with a season of June 1 to Sept. 30, due to the trail location, weather, wildlife and hunting activity.

The Forest Service says that it has worked for years to prevent and repair damage caused by OHV use on unplanned and unauthorized routes. However, because the Ochoco National Forest does not have an official trail system, it cannot apply for many OHV-related grants. With an OHV trail system in place, the Forest could apply for grants to help maintain the trails and enforce proper use. A decision will be made public soon.

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