Ochoco National Forest OHV Trail System
Ochoco National Forest reflects the tremendous value our public lands provide. Unfortunately, the Forest Service approved a 137-mile off-highway vehicle (“OHV”) trail system in the Ochoco National Forest located within the Ochoco Mountains in Central Oregon. The Ochocos are a special place, featuring ancient ponderosa pine forests, craggy basalt spires, wildflower meadows, and stairstep creeks, and are home to an array of wildlife species including majestic elk, native trout, and howling wolves.
In this secluded area right in the heart of Oregon, people enjoy countless recreational opportunities—hiking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, wildflower viewing, and winter skiing and snowshoeing. These opportunities attract residents and visitors alike, contributing millions of dollars each year to the local economies of Prineville, Mitchell, and surrounding communities. The new OHV trail system, however, would cause irreversible damage to the fish and wildlife habitat that drives these recreational activities.
On behalf of Central Oregon LandWatch, Crag stepped up to challenge the Forest Service’s approval of this controversial project. The Forest Service cut corners in its haste to approve the project, disregarding of a number of environmental laws in place to protect wildlife habitat, water quality, and sensitive ecosystems. We will stand up in the courtroom to hold the agency accountable, defending the public’s right to balanced use of our public lands, healthy wildlife habitat, and high-quality recreational opportunities now and for future generations.
What's at Stake
The fight for Ochoco is about preserving our public lands for the American people to further the recreational opportunities in the Ochoco’s magnificent ponderosa pine forests and shrub-steppe grasslands. “Ochoco” in the language of the Paiute Indians means “Wind in the Willows,” and in the age of unprecedented population growth in Central Oregon,the national forest provides an outlet to escape our daily lives and reconnect with Oregon’s wildness.
The most recent data collected by the Forest Service show that only about 3% of visitors to the Ochoco participated in off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation, and yet the Forest Service decided to invest at least half a million dollars to build a major new destination trail system. On top of that, there are hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of miles of roads available to OHV users in Central Oregon, but the Forest Service decided to build this major new OHV trails system right through old-growth forests, irreplaceable shrub-steppe habitat, and sensitive watersheds.
The impacts of OHV use are disproportionately large. When crisscrossing the forest, OHV routes fragment habitat and the loud OHV engines disturb and displace vulnerable wildlife, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk, a prized hunting species. Construction and use of OHV routes also create a host of disturbances of aquatic habitat by removing shade-producing vegetation and eroding streambanks. The Ochoco National Forest has already endured the impact of nearly 700 miles of illegal OHV routes in the Project area. The Forest Service decided to double down on the broken status quo, bucking the desires of local stakeholders who are ready for change.
When the Forest Service asked the public to weigh in on the proposal, the public responded with a resounding “NO!” In fact, the Forest Service received a record number of administrative “objections” to the OHV trail system. Undeterred, the Forest Service plowed ahead.
We filed a complaint in July of 2017, asserting that the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the major new off-highway vehicle trail system failed to comply with a host of environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Our legal challenge to the project relies on expert opinions from former Forest Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W) biologists, as well as an expert hydrologist. These expert scientists documented the significant impacts from past activities in the Ochoco National Forest, including logging, grazing, and road-building, which have contributed to poor water quality for aquatic species, and fragmented habitat for terrestrial wildlife. The impacts from the new OHV trails will pose significant additive impacts, but the Forest Service failed to take a hard look at current conditions, and ignored available scientific information to conclude that the trail system’s impacts would be “minor.”
On May 22, 2018, we participated in a hearing before the Honorable Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan at the Oregon Federal District Courthouse in Pendleton, Oregon. Staff Attorney Oliver Stiefel presented argument to the Judge alongside attorneys for WildEarth Guardians, Oregon Hunters Association, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (“ODF&W). Over 20 local community members, environmental activists, hunters and anglers, and ODF&W biologists were in attendance. The Judge appreciated having a packed courtroom, reflected in the diversity of opposition to the harmful new off-road vehicle system.
A decision in the case is expected in August 2018.
Our client in the case is Central Oregon LandWatch, whose members include local hunters and anglers, and retired Forest Service biologists who know first hand the significant impacts to fish and wildlife habitat that the off-road vehicle trail system would cause.
The case was consolidated with two other challenges to the Forest Service’s controversial project, one filed by WildEarth Guardians and other environmental organizations, and the other filed by the Oregon Hunters Association. We have been closely coordinating with these other parties, as well as ODF&W, who is participating in the case as a “friend of the court,” to ensure that the court receives an unbiased presentation of the significant concerns over impacts to fish and wildlife habitat.
“Rarely do you see a case with such a diversity of opposition. We have hunters, fishers, equestrians, conservations, local citizens–even ODF&W. I think it just goes to show that the Forest Service simply got this one wrong.” -Oliver Steifel, Staff Attorney