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Conservation, hunter groups prevail in lawsuit; decision on proposed trails still subject to final review

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Ochoco National Forest staff has worked on the OHV trail system for close to a decade.

In a preliminary ruling Monday, Judge Patricia Sullivan rejected Ochoco National Forest's proposed OHV trail system.

WildEarth Guardians, Oregon Wild, and the Sierra Club, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, were the prevailing litigants, according to an announcement from the law firm.

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 (off highway vehicle) 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However, those documents were then withdrawn and revised following the Bailey Butte Fire that burned parts of the Ochoco that summer.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.

Western Environmental Law Center claims that the new trail system would have "rewarded illegal offroad use by adding 20 percent more trails without offering any additional enforcement, scarring important wildflower meadows and old-growth ponderosa pine ecosystems."

OHV use disrupts wildlife that inhabit and migrate through the secluded Ochoco Mountains, including Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, redband trout, and gray wolves, the law firm states. "The Forest Service had approved the project despite major opposition from the community and concerns from Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife about disruptions to elk calving and security areas on the forest."

Sarah Cuddy, Ochoco Mountains Coordinator of Oregon Wild, called the decision a big win for the Ochoco.

"While we are thrilled that the courts came to the rescue today, the long-term solution for the Ochoco Mountains will require leadership from Oregon Sens. Wyden, Merkley and Rep. Walden to craft a plan that better balances wildlife, clean water, recreation, and fuels reduction," she said. "(Monday's) decision by the courts was good news for Oregonians who treasure the Ochoco Mountains, from landowners to anglers to hunters and hikers."

Though the litigants prevailed, their law firm stressed that the outcome could change, pending review of Sullivan's finding and recommendations by an Article III judge.

"That means her decision is not final, and theoretically could be changed by the Article III judge," Western Environmental Law Center stated. "The litigants are confident today's decision will stand in the end."

Because the findings and recommendations issued are subject to further legal review, Acting Public Affairs Specialist Jill Welborn said that Ochoco National Forest officials cannot comment on what the decision means to the agency or what steps it intends to take next.

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