An experimental forest is an area administered to provide for the research necessary for the management of the land, as defined by the U.S. Forest Service. The concept began in 1908. The system provides for long-term science and management studies in the major vegetation types of public land administered by the Forest Service.

One such site is the Starkey Experimental Forest located near La Grande in northeast Oregon, where a groundbreaking study on elk started in 1989 on 40 square miles of forest. An elk-proof fence was built and the research began with the Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Today that study informs wildlife biologists and forest management all over the West.

There is no place more like the Starkey than the Ochoco National Forest, one mountain range to the west, but the lessons learned in the Starkey Forest are not being considered in the administration of the Ochoco.

A proposed 130-mile off-highway vehicle trail system is slated for construction in the Ochoco National Forest.

Forty-one miles of currently closed roads will be reopened. Sixteen miles of roads that were planned to be closed will stay open. Roads that are currently open will be designated for OHV use. Existing sno-parks will be used as staging areas.

One of the things that was learned by researchers in the U.S. Forest Service Starkey Experimental Forest was that the lower the miles of road density, the better it is for elk. The more roads in an area, the fewer elk there are. And when road density reaches a certain point, elk leave the area altogether. In the Ochocos, the elk will retreat to private land, where they may not be welcome.

Twenty years ago, the 1997 Oregon Big Game Regulations (I don’t throw them away) listed 1,800 rifle tags available for Ochoco elk hunters. Archery tags were unlimited in those days. Today there are fewer than half that many tags, and archery tags are administered in a lottery. As more and more elk seem to have pushed onto private lands, what has been learned from the Starkey seems to have played out.

The more forest roads and trails are used, the less the elk use nearby habitat.

From personal experience, I saw elk quit using a meadow for breeding when a mountain bike trail was built through it, connecting a trailhead near Broken Top with the Tumalo Creek drainage. When the mountain bikers showed up, the elk changed their patterns. How much more will that happen when the bikes are four-cycle 250s and four-wheelers?

It’s easy to see why hunters would be upset by the lack of regard the Forest Service has for their own study.

The Oregon Hunters Association, which counts 10,000 members in the state, has invested a lot of sweat in the Ochocos. The Redmond chapter in particular, according to chapter member John Crafton, has spent at least 500 volunteer hours and tens of thousands of dollars to help close roads for wildlife. Roads that will be reopened for motorcycles, ATVs and off-road Jeeps!

If we were smart we would study the long-term effects of the Morrow County Trail system in the Heppner Unit (located between the Starkey Forest and the Ochocos), where tens of thousands of acres were lost to hunters when an OHV park was built.

Up in the Ochocos there are many wild trout streams that are home to redband trout. With ATVs and motorcycles throwing up dust and driving through water, erosion occurs at a faster rate and the amount of sedimentation in trout water increases.

In an 11-page objection to the proposed project, Robert W. Rock, a retired natural resources staff officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, ticked off the reasons why this project is bad for the Ochocos. According to Rock, the project does not comply with President Clinton’s 1999 executive order on invasive species; it does not follow the 1989 Land and Resource Management Plan for scablands (upland steppe), which are the Ochoco’s most fragile ecosystem; it does not follow the standards for Old Growth Management; it does not meet the high value of wilderness established in the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Bill that created the Bridge Creek Wilderness; it does not follow the standards of the 1989 Land Management Plan regarding water quality; it does not meet the 1989 Land Management Plan for elk calving and known elk wallows.

Last, Rock points out that OHV users have created 700 miles of illegal trails. The Forest Service intends to adopt some of the illegal trails into the plan, which is in violation of the Forest Service’s own policy. Trails that were created without a special use permit are illegal.

Imagine a strip of wilderness area a mile and a half wide, intended to be a place of solitude, a place of escape for animals, a place where humans are welcome when they go on foot, without motorized vehicles. Now imagine the constant whine of two-cycle and four-cycle engines in the tops of the pine trees. Does that sound like wilderness to you?

To my way of thinking, the Forest Service should read their own research. This is a conservation train wreck. The public, even the OHV-riding public, are the losers if 130 miles of off-road trails are bulldozed into this important elk, mule deer and redband habitat.

— Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Gary at