PRINEVILLE — With a national spotlight hanging over the typically obscure topic of federal land management in the rural West, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, visited Prineville Monday to discuss a proposed transformation of a section of the nearby Ochoco National Forest.
Oregon Wild, a nonprofit formerly known as the Oregon Natural Resources Council, has proposed creating a 312,000-acre national recreation area in the forest with 26,000 acres of designated wilderness.
While a final plan has yet to be completed, the designation would create a more detailed plan managing recreation, restoration and conservation than currently exists, while also limiting growth to the system of motorized vehicle trails. Other competing plans are in the works for the area that intend to expand such trails.
Walden said the purpose of Monday’s town hall meeting, which drew around 100 attendees, was to hear what Crook County residents thought of the plan. Opening the gathering, Walden said he was against the national recreation area idea, a sentiment echoed by a number of residents who see such a designation as creating more rules that limit their use of the forest.
Alluded to throughout the meeting was the situation in Harney County, where armed militants have illegally occupied the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge. The group says it wants the federal government to give up the land to local residents. While Walden has condemned the group’s tactics, he has said he identifies with the sentiment behind its actions.
Setting the tone for the meeting, where federal control was repeatedly equated with red tape, Walden referenced the proposed 2.5 million-acre Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument in Malheur County, something he said President Barack Obama is threatening “to shove down (locals’) throat(s).”
Craig Woodward, a logger, said he opposed Oregon Wild’s plan in the Ochoco National Forest.
“I’m not for clear cutting, but we don’t need another layer of bureaucracy to protect our forest,” he said.
Woodward added he was concerned about firefighters’ ability to access the land and whether logging would be allowed.
Jim Valentine, president of the Ochoco Snow Sports snowmobile club, said the plan would restrict access to Lookout Mountain, what he called “one of the most popular areas in the state” for snowmobile riders.
Valentine added that if the Ochocos no longer draw snowmobile enthusiasts throughout the winter, “the impact on the economy will be significant.”
One of two people who spoke in favor of the plan was Sarah Cuddy, a Prineville native who works for Oregon Wild. Cuddy said as the state grows, “there will be increasing pressure on the forest.”
“This is a proactive plan to handle the increased recreation, instead of just reacting to what’s coming,” she said after the meeting. “For example, it could help point activity toward less ecologically sensitive areas. It’s flexible, and it will allow for the economic benefit to the community without having the forest overrun.”
Cuddy noted her organization held a number of community meetings and is working to incorporate the feedback it received into the plan. She emphasized the designation would not prevent firefighting, logging, grazing or motor vehicle access, though it would stop the expansion of motorized trails.
“Finding a balance is really hard, but part of the point is to find balance while still allowing for a variety of uses,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org