Federal Judge Rules 137-Mile Off-Road Vehicle Trail System Would Harm Elk Habitat

A decision in Central Oregon LandWatch’s fight to protect elk habitat and quiet recreation opportunities in the Ochoco National Forest came out Monday. In a victory for public lands and wildlife, Magistrate Judge Sullivan determined that the Forest Service failed to satisfy its legal obligation to study the environmental impacts of a major new trail system for off-road vehicles, and to ensure that sensitive habitats for elk calving and mating are protected.

LandWatch and other groups brought a legal challenge in federal court over the Forest Service’s proposal to carve up the Ochoco Mountains with a new 137-mile off-road vehicle (ORV) route system. The new destination trail system posed severe threats to elk wallows and calving sites, riparian areas, and other forest visitors’ ability to hunt, fish, hike, and mountain bike in the area. LandWatch’s Executive Director Paul Dewey said, “There is unprecedented opposition to the proposed project because so many Central Oregonians have a special connection to the Ochoco Mountains. We are pleased that the court listened to the diverse voices of the local community who have been telling the Forest Service for years that a destination ORV trail system in one of the last quiet and serene forests just doesn’t make sense.”

The Oregon Hunters Association is one of the diverse sets of groups who also filed suit to stop the project. Hunters oppose the project because it would displace big game and reduce survival rates of the elk population by constructing trails through sensitive calving and fawning areas. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) filed legal briefs in support of LandWatch’s lawsuit, explaining to the court that when elk survival rates decrease, ODFW is forced to issue fewer elk tags, meaning fewer and fewer hunters will be free to take on the unique challenge of hunting this iconic big game species.  

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Robert Rock, a retired Forest Service biologist and LandWatch member, believes it is important to preserve the Ochoco National Forest because of the majestic sights and opportunities for convening with nature it provides Central Oregonians. “I am an avid hunter, fisherman, and woodsman, and I have a deep appreciation for this very special forest in the heart of Oregon. Unfortunately, opportunities for fishing, hunting, and camping have already been severely impacted by ORVs. The Forest Service’s solution to this problem was inexplicably to build more ORV trails, in defiance of scientific information on the harmful impacts of ORV use as well as basic common sense.”

LandWatch was represented by Crag Law Center. Staff Attorney Oliver Stiefel said the court took the opportunity to dig into the issues, especially with regard to the project’s adverse impacts on elk habitat, and determined that the Forest Service violated a series of federal laws.  The writing is on the wall for the Forest Service: the agency must do a better job of protecting healthy wildlife habitat and high-quality recreational opportunities—now and for future generations.

You can read the opinion here.