Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

A controversial proposal to establish a network of trails for off-highway motorized vehicles in the Ochoco National Forest is in jeopardy, after a federal judge in Pendleton recommended that the project be rejected.

Earlier this week, United States Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan rejected the U.S. Forest Service’s proposal in a preliminary ruling. In her decision, Sullivan noted that the Ochoco Summit Trail System Project, which would provide a 137-mile network of trails that could be used by ATVs and other motorized vehicles, did not properly account for the needs of vulnerable species, including elk and gray wolves.

“Here, the Forest Service committed multiple substantive errors, as to multiple statutes, regulations, and rules,” the decision reads.

While the decision is preliminary, acting as a recommendation that could be upheld, denied or altered by a U.S. District Court judge, conservation groups and other organizations in opposition to the trails proposal are celebrating.

Sarah Cuddy, Ochoco Mountains coordinator for the environmental group Oregon Wild, said the comprehensive nature of the decision makes it unlikely it would be rejected entirely.

“It’s a win for the Ochocos,” Cuddy said. “It’s the biggest and toughest hurdle to overcome.”

The Forest Service has been looking at options for an expanded trail system within the Ochoco National Forest for more than a decade. Jill Welborn, acting public affairs officer for the national forest, said the forest has seen a lot of use from off-highway vehicles in recent years, much of which takes place on user-created trails that can damage native vegetation, disrupt habitat and harm stream beds. The goal of the proposal, Welborn said, was to create a way for OHV riders to use the forest without damaging it.

Cuddy and other environmentalists felt the proposal selected by the Forest Service doesn’t fix those problems. After the agency released a final environmental impact statement in 2016, which called for a mix of new trails and existing Forest Service roads to be converted into a trail system, hunters, conservationists and other groups criticized the proposal as being harmful to a range of animals living in the forest. Cuddy said the groups went into conflict resolution to solve the issues. However, when the Forest Service approved the plan last June, conservationists, hunting organizations and other groups sued.

In her decision, Sullivan notes that she didn’t believe the Forest Service did enough to mitigate impacts to the Ochoco National Forest’s elk populations, something the Ochoco National Forest has prioritized in its forest management plan.

Greg Jackle, wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Prineville district, said elk are particularly sensitive to noise, and the sounds from motorized vehicles can cause elk to scatter and abandon valuable habitat, even during their calving season.

“It’s not ideal when they’re trying to raise a calf or put on fat for the winter,” Jackle said.

More than 4,100 elk were confirmed to be living in the section of the forest in 2017, fewer than the agency’s goal of 4,500 animals in the area. In part because of that, Jackle said he had concerns about adding another nuisance that could drive elk out of the national forest.

Because the proposed trails would traverse elk rutting and calving areas, Sullivan ruled that the proposal violates requirements in the forest plan.

Additionally, the decision notes that the Forest Service has failed to comply with its standards for road density throughout the forest, which requires that roads and trails “be at the lowest density which meets long-term resource needs.” Cuddy added that the Forest Service failed to account for closed roads that are still used by drivers, cyclists and trail-riders.

“The way they conducted their analysis isn’t consistent with what’s happening on the ground,” Cuddy said.

Sullivan also wrote that the Forest Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act by determining the project area wouldn’t impact gray wolf populations, and failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While the area lacks any confirmed wolf packs, Cuddy said it represents a corridor that wolves could use as they disperse from Northeast Oregon.

“It’s a vital corridor between the (Blue Mountains) and the Cascades with regard to wolf recovery,” she said.

While the judge didn’t uphold all of the plaintiffs’ claims, Cuddy said the scope of the decision gives them a solid case when the issue is reviewed. Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, said having support from groups such as the Oregon Hunters Association and ODFW helped their case.

“You don’t see those groups in court that often, so you know that this is serious,” Dewey said.

Any objections to the decision are due by Sept. 10. Welborn said the Forest Service will be meeting with legal counsel next week to discuss options. Dewey and Jackle said they could see a scaled-back version of the proposal in the future.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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