Participants fault limited discussion
By Hilary Corrigan, The Bulletin, Published Dec 29, 2016
As Ochoco National Forest officials prepare to finalize a decision setting up an off-highway vehicle trail system, some participants in the process consider suing and complain that a recent meeting did not allow a full discussion of their concerns.
Ochoco officials have long sought to designate a specific OHV trail system. A U.S. Forest Service proposal in September calls for creating a 137-mile OHV system for summer months — June 1 to Sept. 30. The proposal includes existing and new trails, staging areas, information kiosks and other facilities. The Forest Service would build the project in phases over several years at an estimated cost of $488,000. Forest Supervisor Stacey Forson could finalize the proposal late next month.
The proposal has prompted objections from hunting, conservation and other organizations as well as individuals. Earlier this month, the Forest Service hosted an objection resolution meeting to try to resolve certain issues — for instance, ways to phase in the project and do related monitoring work. Although public, only those who were already involved in the process were invited to attend. About three dozen people did.
As an invited participant, retired veterinarian Donna Harris — a hiker and longtime Ochoco visitor — had planned to discuss research on the stress that OHVs cause for elk and the possibilities for monitoring it. But like many at the meeting, she supported adopting an alternative that would take no action — a topic that Forest Service officials said at the start of the meeting was not on the table for discussion.
“That shut me down,” Harris said.
She wonders why that wasn’t specified in the materials sent out before the meeting.
“I just thought the whole process was very strange,” Harris said, noting that she’d driven hours to attend. “We’re not really in the profession of doing this.”
Those who are in the profession also found it different.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch. “This was an odd duck.”
The agency had a tough situation, relying on a process that was not designed for so many objectors, Dewey acknowledged. But blocking discussion of the issues that people had objected to did not help, he said, noting that he and most meeting attendees did not expect such a narrow focus for discussion.
“What a waste of time,” he said. LandWatch will likely file a lawsuit in federal court over the proposal.
John Crafton, board member of the Redmond chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association, expected to talk about his objections to the location of the proposed system and its possible impacts to elk calving areas, habitat for other wildlife and to hunting and fishing.
“That’s why I went to the meeting,” said Crafton, who did get to raise some of his concerns but did not expect such limited discussion. “Why else would you have a meeting?”
Crafton argued that his organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of volunteer hours over the years working to close old logging roads through the area — to create intact, undisturbed areas for wildlife — that the trail system will simply re-open.
He expects the association to consider its next steps, including the possibility of legal action, at a board meeting next month.
But Larry Ulrich, president of Ochoco Trail Riders, appreciated Forson cutting off discussion of the no-action alternative and focusing discussion on the proposal.
“This has been going on for years,” Ulrich said of the process.
He expected that focused discussion from the meeting materials sent out beforehand. Those materials call for “open dialogue,” saying officials were most interested in discussing areas for resolution — for instance, options for phasing in the project.
Ulrich has argued that the Forest Service has deemed OHV riding a legitimate use; that the trails would not impede on other recreation; that animals adapt to vehicles’ presence; and that OHV riders could enjoy the forest, with its more compact clay soil that’s better to ride on in the summer than the volcanic ash around Bend.
“It’s a big forest. There’s plenty of room for everybody,” Ulrich said.
Open discussion has gone on with this project for years, said Patrick Lair, spokesman for Ochoco National Forest/Crooked River National Grassland.
The fairly new dispute resolution meeting in the federal process aims to add a step before a final decision gets signed, to help resolve issues that have already been raised and to help avoid litigation, Lair said.
“I understand people were frustrated,” Debbie Anderson, regional administrative review coordinator at the U.S. Forest Service, said of the meeting.
But the Forest Service had already planned to respond in writing by Jan. 23 to objectors’ latest round of filings from last month.
The meeting aimed to focus on areas to resolve rather than having participants repeat those written objections and then have no time to discuss possible resolutions — an outcome of a similar meeting a couple of years ago. And participants got meeting material beforehand.
“They all got an agenda. Whether or not they understood it or not, I don’t know,” Anderson said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7812,