The Oregon Hunters Association (OHA), a nonprofit group of more than 10,000 hunters, has filed a lawsuit challenging the June 27 Record of Decision by the U.S. Forest Service to build an additional 137 miles of off highway vehicle (OHV) trails on the Ochoco National Forest.
OHA's State Board of Directors, staff, and Central Oregon OHA chapters have opposed the Ochoco Summit Trail Project since it was proposed in 2009. OHA (oregonhunters.org) is the state's largest Oregon-based pro-hunting organization, with 10,000 members and 26 chapters statewide. Its mission is, "Protecting Oregon's wildlife, habitat and hunting heritage."
OHA points out that its organization and others, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, have been fully engaged in the public process to oppose adding 137 miles of OHV trails and roads in critically important elk habitat.
The lawsuit filed by OHA states that the decision to approve this project is not supported by scientific wildlife research conducted by the Forest Service on the Starkey Experimental Forest in northeast Oregon. According the Jim Akenson, OHA conservation director, the project would add significant new road and trail use, which has been shown by the Forest Service's own scientists to have adverse impacts on elk habitat and security. Research on the Starkey Experimental Forest has found that elk avoid areas with 1.1 miles of roads or motorized trails.
"This project would displace elk and force them from public to private lands, resulting in more damage complaints and fewer elk to pursue for the public land hunter," Akenson said.
OHA filed a lawsuit in the Pendleton Division of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. Scott Jerger, an attorney for OHA, explained that OHA's suit alleges that the Forest Service's decision violates the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
"OHA did everything they could to participate in the Forest Service planning process and raise their concerns about impacts on elk security and habitat," said Jerger. "The final decision by the Ochoco National Forest left OHA with no other option but to seek relief from the Court."
OHA states that the Ochoco Mountains have historically been some of the best habitat for deer and elk in Oregon and further noted that information published on ODFW's website reveals that hunting contributes more than $14 million to central Oregon's tourism economy and more than $104 million to the statewide tourism economy on an annual basis.
"OHA filed this lawsuit as a last resort," said Paul Donheffner, OHA's Legislative Director. "We were very frustrated that despite the objections of ODFW, OHA and others, the Forest Service disregarded their own studies and plans to approve this project. This is not about off-road vehicles, which certainly have their place. This is all about protecting the Ochocos for elk."