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Mountain bike trail system near Mill Creek portion of forest opposed by area residents

A proposed mountain bike trail system in the Mill Creek area on Ochoco National Forest has ignited pushback from nearby residents.

The Lemon Gulch Trail System Project is a mountain bike trail system that would feature up to 52 miles of trails on local forestland. The system, proposed by the Ochoco Trails Group, would provide various difficulty levels, downhill technical trails and loops, and segments designed for people with disabilities on adaptive mountain bikes.

A maximum of 52 miles of single-track trails would be opened to hiking and mountain biking, and the system would feature parking and trailhead areas at the top, middle and bottom of the system so people can shuttle. The trail system would also offer toilets and signage.

According to Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist for Ochoco National Forest (ONF), staff and line officers have been involved in the development of trail proposals since the Ochoco Trails group was formed in 2017.

"In February 2019, a package of trails proposals was submitted to the Forest," she said. "Following internal meetings and review, the Forest Service decided to move forward with several of the proposals." 

She noted that the decision to proceed was made easier by the Ochoco Trails Group "de-conflicting" the proposals — working to avoid issues such as conflicting uses and wildlife habitat.

Kern said that Forest Service personnel met with affected permittees this past May, attended a county meeting in July, and attended Crook County Natural Resources Advisory Committee meetings in August and September. 

"There has been an abundance of correspondence and communication with property owners and permittees over the spring and summer," she said.

However, area residents argue that they found out about the Lemon Gulch proposal too late in the process, and they are not pleased with the communication thus far or the trail proposal. The first public rumblings emerged during a local town hall held by U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz. The proposal dominated much of the Q&A portion of the meeting, prompting Bentz, who had not heard about the proposal prior to that forum, to contact ONF staff. His intervention, and that of the Crook County Natural Resource Advisory Committee, resulted in the Forest Service pausing the process to collect more public input.

But area residents argue the pause is not enough.

"The affected landowners and permittees were not notified in this NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, and the Forest Service has gone into the analysis stage now," said Don Vogel, a Mill Creek area resident whose property is located on a portion of the proposed trail system. "They have paused this process for more input, but what they are not doing is looking at any alternatives outside of Lemon Gulch. In their NEPA process, they might reduce the total number of miles of trail and the number of trailheads, etc., but they are not looking at any other area on the Ochoco National Forest for this proposal."

He and other residents have consequently determined that the Forest Service process is "flawed and illegal."

Vogel highlighted several issues the trail system might create for him and other fellow landowners and grazing permittees. He noted that mountain bikers could cause cattle to move out of the established grazing area, which could affect breeding during the spring, and cause a financial hardship. In addition, if the cattle leave the grazing area, it could cause reduced cattle weight, which Vogel said could also affect revenue.

He went on to point out that hunters could see an impact.

"A lot of mountain bike use will move the wildlife out of that area," he said. "The hunters bring a lot of revenue to the area."

Other concerns raised included the impact to road quality, noxious weed spread, and even potential safety hazard if mountain bikers should accidentally encounter cattle on the trails.

"We did not have the opportunity to voice these concerns to the Forest Service," Vogel said. "We are simply asking the Forest Service to go back to the beginning and start the process over. We are not asking them to rule out Lemon Gulch at this point, but we are asking them to go back and look at other alternatives as well."

The Crook County Natural Resources Advisory has ultimately reached a similar conclusion after the Crook County Court initially expressed its support, in written form, for the project this past spring.

"The county had written a general letter of support for that project back in April based on a request from some of the members of the Ochoco Trails Group," said Tim Deboodt, the county's natural resources policy coordinator. "Then, in July, a large group of citizens at a county court meeting requested the court rescind that letter and ask the Ochoco Forest to back up and involve the public to a greater extent."

The county court consequently reached out to its Natural Resource Advisory Committee (NRAC) and asked it to review the Lemon Gulch project and the process the Forest Service used to get to this point.

"Since July 7, the committee has met five times to list to the public's concerns and gain history over this whole process," Deboodt said.

The committee determined that the process did not involve the entire community, and members therefore voted unanimously to recommend the county court withdraw its letter of support and ask the Forest Service to "back up and start over again and involve a greater cross-section of the community in public meetings about non-motorized trail expansion throughout the entire Ochocos, not just focused on bicycles."

Deboodt said that the county court accepted that report at a work session last Tuesday and had agreed to send a letter to the Forest Service. That letter is scheduled to be reviewed at this Wednesday's county court meeting.

Amid the pause, Kern said the Forest Service is developing alternatives that will address concerns raised by grazing permittees. Once the agency has completed an environmental assessment, they will provide a public comment period.

She went on to note that the Forest Service is trying to balance its response to address the needs of both the affected residents and the mountain biking enthusiasts.

"The National Forest System lands are managed with a congressional mandate based on the 1960 Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, which among other policy, dictates that we will manage timber, range, water, recreation and wildlife equitably," she said. "There have been a few vocal opponents to the project, but there is a great deal of support for it as well. We are working to strike a balance between uses, minimize conflict and provide a variety of recreational opportunities for the public while also honoring the long history of grazing on the Ochoco National Forest. In this project area, we think we can demonstrate that we can work through the issues and come up with a project that will meet the needs of the public while also addressing the concerns of permittees."

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