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Several groups challenge final decision on 137-mile motorized trail system on Ochoco National Forest

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Ochoco National Forest staff will move forward with the trail system.

News emerged recently that the Oregon Hunters Association was taking legal action against the Ochoco National Forest's proposed Off Highway Vehicles trail system.

Their primary concern, the organization said, is that the 137 miles of trails will harm key elk habitat on the forest.

While the OHA lawsuit is the most recent action taken against the June 29 decision, it isn't the first as two other suits were filed in July against the signed final decision.

The Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple conservation groups, including Wild Earth Guardians, Oregon Wild and Sierra Club.

"It is clear the community values the Ochoco National Forest for its wild landscapes, wildlife and quiet recreation, and would like to see the Forest Service manage the land to reflect those values," said Marla Fox, rewilding attorney at Wild Earth Guardians. "This is about balancing uses on the forest consistent with America's bedrock environmental laws. As the Trump Administration ramps up its attack on our public lands, defending wild places like the Ochocos is even more important."

Sarah Cuddy, Oregon Wild's Ochoco Mountains coordinator, spoke of an "illegal trail problem in the Ochocos," stating the forest is "already plagued with 700 miles of illegal trails and the accompanying destruction."

"Despite unprecedented public opposition, the Forest Service has chosen to move forward with a proposal that will irrevocably change the character of the forest and jeopardize fish, wildlife and other recreational users," she said.

Central Oregon Land Watch is legally challenging the decision as well, stating it would "cut through the heart of the Ochoco National Forest, which … provides habitat for many species, including elk and redband trout."

"This stunning pine forest also provides for recreational activities like hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, photography and many more outdoor adventures that visitors and residents enjoy," the organization stated in a July news release. "The most recent data collected by the Forest Service shows that only 3.4 percent of visitors used an OHV for recreation, yet the proposed OHV routes will cost at least half a million dollars and cause significant disturbance to all other recreation types."

The final decision on the Ochoco Summit trail system was signed June 29, and according to Ochoco leaders, the project will designate and develop a multi-use trail system for off-highway vehicles in the Ochoco Summit area of the Ochoco National Forest. It will be established primarily on existing roads and trails that connect to open, mixed-use roads. The completed trail system will include a total of 137 miles of roads and trails, of which 53 miles will be newly developed.

"I recognize there are strongly held values regarding motorized recreation on public lands," said Ochoco National Forest Supervisor Stacey Forson. "This project will help us achieve our goals of providing legitimate and sustainable motorized recreation trails while curtailing unauthorized motorized use and access where negative resource impacts are occurring."

The trail system proposal originated in 2009, when the Ochoco National Forest conducted its travel management plan. The work resulted in adoption of a motorized travel system in 2011 that left about 80 percent of the forest off limits to OHV use.

After hosting public meetings on the loss of OHV access, the Forest Service chose to develop a trail system proposal that would provide OHV users a suitable, enforceable and sustainable riding opportunity in the Ochocos.

Development of the trail system has not come without setbacks. In the spring of 2014, the Forest Service had released its Draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) and later that summer released a Final EIS and draft Record of Decision for the trail system.

However, those documents were then withdrawn and revised following the Bailey Butte Fire that burned parts of the Ochoco that summer. Finally, in February 2016, the Forest Service released a Supplemental Draft EIS and took public comment until April 4. Then on Sept. 22, the Forest Service released the Final Supplemental EIS and draft Record of Decision. It included five alternative trail systems ranging in distance from 124 miles to 158.

Ochoco National Forest leaders then fielded about 20 objections, which came from a variety of different organizations and interests. OHV groups sought more trail mileage and access, while conservation groups and government agencies like Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife raised concerns about impact to the environment.

At this time, Ochoco staff intends to continue moving forward with the project, spokesman Patrick Lair stated, although that doesn't mean OHV enthusiasts should expect new trails right away.

"We have no immediate plans to begin trail work," Lair said. "We are in discussion with partners to develop an elk monitoring framework. There is no timeline associated with trail construction at this point. The plan all along has been to build one segment at a time as funding allows, and monitor it as we go for issues and problems."

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