Northeast of the city of Prineville lies the Ochoco National Forest—a much-loved area more than 845,000 acres in size. Inside its borders are three Congressionally-designated wilderness areas, more than 375 species of wildlife and countless firs and pines. Then there's the current controversy about who can use the lands and when.
Last month, the U.S. Forest Service released a proposal for a combined 137 miles of off-highway vehicle (OHV) trails in the Ochocos. The proposed Ochoco Summit Trail System would open currently closed trails and construct over 50 miles of new trails at an estimated cost of $488,000.
The Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statement and the Draft Record of Decision cite a need for new, sustainable and diverse trails "open to motorized recreational vehicles, including OHVs, to provide legal access, protect natural resources, and minimize conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreational use" in the Ochocos.
Both documents state that the proposed trails are meant to "offset the loss of opportunity" for OHV riders after travel laws in 2005 and 2011 limited the legal travel area for motorized vehicles. The proposal is currently in a 45-day objection period, during which any group or individual who submitted written objections to the previous proposal can "file an objection if they feel their concerns have not been adequately addressed," said Patrick Lair, the public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest.
Lair said the Forest Service is confident in the project, officially proposed in 2009. A proposal was initially submitted in 2014, but was withdrawn after a forest fire created the need for additional analysis and dialogue.
"I think we've spent a lot of time reviewing it to make sure it's a solid proposal. And I don't think we'd be coming forward with it now if it wasn't ready," Lair said.
However, many are still concerned. "I just don't think there's a demand for it," said Sarah Cuddy of the conservation organization Oregon Wild. "OHV riders are a small minority user group, and to give them one-third of the heart of the Ochoco National Forest just doesn't seem like the right action."
Lair said OHV usage did drop significantly after the travel management laws passed, but is still popular. The proposed trails will keep riders from making their own illegal trails, Lair says. "This isn't just building a system. Another aspect of the work is closing all the other unauthorized routes within the implementation area," he said.
Cuddy doesn't think this will cut down on riders making their own routes, and added that there are thousands of miles of other trails across Oregon available to riders.
"I agree that everybody deserves a place to recreate, and no doubt, motorized recreators deserve a place to enjoy and recreate," Cuddy said. "But there's plenty of other user groups that are low impact that we could invest in, because there's plenty of opportunity for motorized recreation."
Cuddy is also concerned with the proposal's environmental impact. Oregon Wild is currently working to make the Ochocos a National Recreational Area.
According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the forest is home to 30 unique species of wildlife and almost 40 unique plant species, all of which will be minimally affected by the proposed trails. Lair said several routes were abandoned or redrawn to avoid wildlife and streams, as well as to set aside rehabilitation areas.
Many feel that the proposed routes are still invasive. "If you look at the map of the trails they've proposed, it's the area that game animals frequent," said Bill Littlefield, president of the Bend chapter of the Oregon Hunter's Association. "It's just going to make a lot of noise, a lot of dust, and move a lot of other things out. I don't think it's good overall for the forest's health."
Littlefield says the trails will also negatively impact private landowners in the area, who will deal with animals being pressured out of their natural habitats. "They can't (farm and raise animals) very well if they've got hundreds of birds, elk or deer on their property eating their crops."
Lair said the proposal addresses these concerns: riding season will only last from June 1 to Sept. 30 so as not to interfere with elk hunting season; and many of the proposed trails that came in close proximity to private property were abandoned. "We're creating more safe zones or quiet areas for wildlife through this process than what currently exists," he said. But even if the proposed trails were moved away from the wildlife areas, Littlefield says forcing such a large zone is difficult.
After the objection period, the Forest Service will start an objection resolution period, followed by the implementation plan development. Lair says the project will proceed gradually, allowing the Forest Service to react and adapt to any new challenges.
Editor's note: the Source Weekly contacted the Ochoco Trail Riders group numerous times to elicit a comment on the proposal, but did not receive a timely response.