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Forest Service should start over and give Crook County officials a seat at the table this time while reaching out to the people who live in the area

Nothing seems to draw a large crowd to Carey Foster Hall quite like a controversial project proposal on the Ochoco National Forest.

Wednesday evening, around 300 people showed up to express their opposition to the Lemon Gulch trail system complex, a project spearheaded by members of Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA) and Ochoco Trails, two regional cycling organizations. Guest speakers, most of whom are grazing permittees in the proposal area, called out the Forest Service for not including them in the early stages of the project, accused the two biking organizations of misrepresenting who supports the trail system and insisted the parties restart the process and include more of the people affected by the project or abandon it altogether.

They weren't the only ones with a gripe. Numerous citizens came up to the podium with a variety of concerns and complaints. They worry that the trails and influx of mountain bikers will adversely affect cattle grazing, harm wildlife and hunting and draw too much traffic. Many believe the 52-mile destination mountain bike complex is too ambitious and runs counter to the cultures and customs Crook County values.

Even the Crook County Court has gotten involved. After seeing an initially smaller scale proposal — which they originally supported — morph into something much different, they too are urging the Forest Service to restart the process so people can provide input. The situation has even prompted the governing body to invoke coordination specific to the project. It's the first time coordination has been suggested in relation to a single Crook County item — and it's the first time since Oregon Wild's National Recreation Area proposal, six years ago, that coordination has even been publicly discussed.

What has become increasingly clear is that the majority of community members who have an opinion on the Lemon Gulch trail system don't want it. And they are frustrated by a process that has either completely sidestepped the public input process or made it far less accessible than it should be.

Recent history suggests that the Crook County community is pro-bike trails and pro cycling. When COTA wanted to build a community bike park, the idea was welcomed by the public and local leaders alike. The completed project was celebrated in a grand opening that enjoyed a strong turnout. Subsequent plans to add the Lower 66 and the companion Upper 66 trail systems below the Prineville rimrock were similarly embraced and celebrated.

So, why were those projects embraced while the Lemon Gulch one is reviled? The size and location are certainly a big part of it, but those aren't the only reasons. On previous projects, COTA took a different approach. They involved local government early in the process and reached out to the community. They gathered support for the projects before moving forward on them. And they didn't change the scope of the proposal after people pledged their support, nor claim people supported it who didn't.

Now, with the Lemon Gulch proposal, COTA and Ochoco Trails are cast as the enemy in a community that has embraced previous trails projects. And the Forest Service is taking heat and will continue to unless they forget about pausing the process and agree to start over.

And that is exactly what they should do. They should start over and give Crook County officials a seat at the table this time while reaching out to the people who live in the area and depend on it for their livelihood. Everyone involved with the project needs to approach it the right way. They have now seen what happens when they don't.


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