Environmental groups are celebrating after a new court ruling cemented a prior decision striking down a controversial proposal to develop a network of trails for off-highway motorized vehicles through the Ochoco National Forest.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez issued a decision affirming key points of a prior decision from U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan.
Sullivan ruled in August that the proposed Ochoco Summit Trail System Project, which would provide a 137-mile network of trails that could be used by ATVs and other motorized vehicles, didn’t properly account for the needs of vulnerable species living in the Ochoco National Forest, including elk and gray wolves.
In addition to adopting many of the findings, Hernandez’s decision adds that the U.S. Forest Service did not provide sufficient justification for changing rules that govern fish habitat in the forest’s rivers and streams, and make it more difficult to revisit the project in the future.
Representatives from the collection of state agencies, hunting organizations and environmental groups that opposed the proposal celebrated the ruling as an unequivocal win over a project they claim was substantially flawed.
“It sets a high bar for disturbing what’s in the Ochoco (National) Forest,” said Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch.
The Forest Service began looking at ways to expand a trail system in the Ochocos more than a decade ago, partially as a response to increased use from OHV riders. The stated goal of the project was to create a series of trails that allow riders to use the forest without harming it.
However, hunters, conservationists and other stakeholders felt a trail system may still end up harming animals like elk and redband trout, which are sensitive to the noise and the debris generated by the vehicles.
“Our big takeaway is that the Forest Service can’t just ram something through,” said John Mellgren, staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center.
The Forest Service finalized its plans in 2017, prompting a lawsuit from conservationists, hunting organizations and other groups.
The magistrate’s ruling in August declared that “Forest Service committed multiple substantive errors, as to multiple statutes, regulations, and rules,” including failing to provide appropriate consideration for the elk living in the forest, which use areas near the proposed trails for rutting and calving.
“That’s really, really special elk habitat,” Dewey said.
In addition to clarifying several of the magistrate’s comments, the decision issued on Thursday vacates the planning that’s been done for the project. Mellgren said this makes it more difficult for the Forest Service to revisit the trail system in the future.
“They’d have to start from scratch,” he said.
Neither Dewey nor Mellgren was willing to speculate on a potential appeal or alternative plans for a network of trails. Due to the government shutdown, a representative from the Forest Service was unable to comment on the ruling.
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