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If more mountain bike trails must be built in the Ochocos, they should go where they don't damage the land or disturb wildlife

Lemon Creek is part of a serene, mixed conifer forest on the western edge of the Ochoco mountains that supports wildlife, naturalists, hikers, bicyclists and hunters. It is a peaceful place where one can commune with nature and restore the spirit. The U. S. Forest Service (USFS) maintains a network of roads that provides access throughout the drainage. It is a place where recreationists coexist with the ecosystem as they walk and ride softly on the land. These dynamics support recreation with minimal disturbance to the environment. Local folks enjoy just driving through the area and other parts of the beautiful and bucolic Mill Creek Valley.

Social scientists have measured the impacts of trees and solitude on our mental health and sense of well-being. First Nations people were aware of this before Europeans colonized the Americas. In our ever more stressful day-to-day existence, we need trees and peaceful settings to recharge. As electronic devices and social media simplify but complicate our lives, we need respite to maintain our mental health. Perhaps it's time to pause, taking time to assess our priorities and needs, individually and collectively, so we can come together to make decisions that benefit us, future generations and planet earth.

We are living in a time of short-term thinking and instant gratification. Our wants often trump our needs in a consumer society where enough is never enough, and we fail to consider the impact of our actions on others, the community and the environment. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our actions that degrade and pollute the earth. Can we agree to begin thinking long term, emphasizing needs rather than wants? Without intentional care for the land, we will degrade an ecosystem and lose a special experience that is enjoyed today in Lemon Creek, the Mill Creek Valley and the Ochocos. Do we wish to sacrifice this forest for intensive, unmanaged recreational development?

It's time to pause and reflect on how we're relating to the land on which our well being and survival depend. As an example, where are we going with the Ochocos? Are recreational development and growth progress? What is progress? Are we going to honor the interdependence of humanity and the land? Is the goal of humanity to be in dynamic equilibrium with the land, or will we continue to use the land in ways that support our short-term wants, regardless of the long-term consequences? Are we in favor of serving wants rather than the needs of the collective community? Do we want Crook County, Prineville and the Ochoco mountains to be overwhelmed by population growth and recreational development that we see in Bend and Deschutes County? Let's make decisions that promote sustainability of the land, maintaining multiple use of dispersed recreation that does not result in long-term damage to the land and wildlife.

Mountain biking is a rigorous, thrilling experience enjoyed by many throughout Central Oregon and beyond. Its popularity is creating recreational pressure on public agencies to find more areas for their enjoyment. We support activities that challenge us, cleanse the spirit and improve fitness. Support for more mountain biking on public land is growing, with more than 1,000 miles of roads and trails where they can ride in Deschutes County: Many new trails have been built there in the past 10 years. There are lots of places where mountain bikers can ride in the Ochocos: More than 800 miles of motorized and non-motorized roads and trails are accessible to bicyclists.

If more mountain bike trails are going to be built in the Ochocos, they must be built where they will not "damage the land and vegetation or disturb wildlife." If new trail systems are built, it's imperative to consider their ecological impact. Fragile habitats that are core areas for wildlife must be avoided. The USFS and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) consider the Lemon Creek Watershed core habitat for elk and deer. Their wildlife biologists have told me that a mountain bike trails complex should not be built in Lemon Creek. Research conducted by the USFS and the ODFW has shown that mountain biking is second only to motorized vehicles in disturbing elk. Mule deer are at below management levels in the Grizzly Unit that includes Lemon Creek.

Treaded and looped mountain bike trails crisscrossing steep, talus slopes and downhill trails built for speed would constitute an ecological disaster within the Lemon Creek drainage. Tree roots would be exposed, reducing their resistance to colonization and damage by opportunistic insects and fungal pathogens. This would reduce resilience of the forest that provides many ecological and other benefits, including soil integrity, plant health and carbon sequestration. After construction, freezing and thawing would expose trail-supporting rocks and disrupt berms that will channel spring runoff causing erosion and sedimentation.

Do we want an exclusive mountain bike trails complex or sustainability in Lemon Creek? Can we begin to think long-term? Those are the questions.

Dave Nielsen is a biologist and ecologist. He can be reached at 541-526-1500

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