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New Lines In the Sand at Oregon Dunes

Off-roaders threaten to "go to the governor" because trails which they illegally created and have used with impunity for years at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area are, at last, being closed off.

By Saul Hubbard
Eugene Register-Guard

The web of trails that border vast expanses of open sand in sections of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area slice through woods, shrubbery and beachgrass.

Some of the trails are wide and well-established. Others are narrow — just four or five feet wide — or have been reclaimed by nature, having fallen out of favor with their main users: drivers of all-terrain vehicles and other motorized off-highway vehicles.

OHV users have ridden many of these trails — which, in some spots are so dense they resemble spiderwebs in aerial photos — for decades. During that time, the area has won a national reputation as a premier West Coast dune riding spot.

In the winter, the trails are often quiet. But the rest of the year they're alive with the whine and roar of OHVs.

And technically, according to federal management plans dating back to at least 1994, OHV use of the vast majority of these trails is illegal, banned because of fears that the riding trashes the environment, and in order to let other people enjoy the public land in different ways.

For nearly two decades, the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that manages the dunes, hasn't enforced the restrictions. Forest Service officials say that's because they had more pressing priorities in regulating the areas that are legally open to OHVs.

In 2003, the agency banned alcohol on the dunes. In 2005, it corralled overnight campers into 133 so-called "sand camps," at which a limited number of campers and vehicles can stay, ending years of camping free-for-alls.

Now, after three-and-a-half years of work with stakeholders, the Forest Service is nearing the end of its process to determine which of the many illegal trails it will designate as legal, and which it will close.

The agency released drafts of five alternatives this fall, and public comments on the proposals have poured in, to the tune of 1,200 in three months.

The issue has deeply divided Oregonians and others who enjoy the dunes. OHV riders are furious, saying the federal government is taking away their long-established rights. Environmental advocates, meanwhile, criticize the agency for backing away from its 1994 plan.

Jerry Ingersoll, the supervisor of the coastal Siuslaw National Forest, is expected to make a final decision this year, potentially as soon as this spring. At that point, the Forest Service's "laissez faire" attitude to the trails would end, officials say. Barriers and hard-to-miss signage would go up to shut the trails. The agency would beef up the enforcement staff. It would then issue warnings, and later, tickets, to violators.

The fights with OHV users over the alcohol ban and camping restrictions were contentious, but the ferociousness of the tussle over the trail closures is almost unprecedented, said Frank Davis, a planner at the Siuslaw National Forest.

Indeed, because the Forest Service's attitude to the trails has been schizophrenic for so long, both sides of the debate, OHV users and environmentalists, feel they will lose something in the new plan, regardless of how it turns out. 

For OHVs, steady shrinkage

 

For OHV users, enforcing the 1994 dunes management plan means losing both a significant amount of space and what they refer to as "the trail riding experience" — which they consider a big part of the Oregon Dunes' draw.

OHV users also see this as part of a wider trend: the gradual shrinking of the areas where they can ride.

"We're protecting what is left of our space," said Jody Phillips, president of the advocacy group Save the Riders Dunes.

When the federal government created the recreation area in 1972, OHV users could ride on roughly 91 percent of the 29,000-acre expanse of sand that's 40 miles long and up to two miles wide in places, and runs from Florence to Coos Bay.

Today, they have full access to 5,930 acres of what is classified as 10(B) land — mostly open sand. That constitutes roughly 21 percent of the recreation area. On 10(C) land, where the 1994 Dunes Plan stipulates that riders use only a handful of designated trails, mainly in order to get to different sections of 10(B) lands, there are an estimated 135 miles of trails that are illegal, but that riders use anyway.

Anywhere from 24 percent to 48 percent of those illegal trails would be declared legal under various revision scenarios.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, want the Forest Service to stick with the 1994 plan very closely, although they are not stridently opposing the legalizing of some well-established illegal trails.

"The 1994 plan was already a compromise. ... (OHV users) got what they got," said Doug Heiken, the Eugene-based conservation and restoration coordinator for Oregon Wild.

Hiking, mushroom picking and other uses that could be occurring on the 10(C) land are limited because of OHVs on the trails, Heiken added. It's space that riders "took over without any official decision allowing them to do so."

Heiken said there are also some "very sensitive" native plant communities — including lichens and mosses — that could benefit from the trails being closed to OHVs.

OHV advocates push back

Since the Forest Service issued its first tangible proposal in June 2011, the agency, under pressure from OHV advocates and local elected officials, has edged toward legalizing more and more of the trails.

"People wanted a trail riding experience here," said Mike Northrup, assistant fisheries program manager for the Siuslaw National Forest. "We heard that loud and clear."

The Forest Service's initial pitch would have effectively legalized 33 miles of illicit trails, and enforced closure of 100 miles of illegal trails. The agency’s latest preferred alternative would legalize 51 miles and shut down 84 miles.

It would be very difficult to map and maintain mazes of newly legalized narrow trails to existing Forest Service standards, so the agency proposes to open up those trails by converting swaths of mostly vegetated land from a 10(C) to a 10(B) designation. That would give OHV riders free rein on that redesignated land to create unlimited new trails, Forest Service officials acknowledge.

In the agency's latest preferred alternative, 455 acres would be redesignated this way. Another alternative would open up 966 acres to full OHV use.

For Heiken and others, that's a huge red flag.

"The more land they propose to re­designate, the more concerned we're going to be," Heiken said.

The conflicting demands from interest groups have put the Forest Service in a squeeze.

As an example, Northrup pointed to one small area just south of Florence that he says riders kept asking to be opened up to OHVs.

"Everyone's saying: 'This is a great, quiet spot for kids to learn,'" he said. "So I'm thinking 'That's the type of situation we're trying to fix.'"

Then, at a recent open house, a Florence resident approached him about the same area, Northrup said.

"'Whatever you do, don't open that up,' (the man) said. 'I live right across from there and the noise is terrible,'" Northrup said.

One outcome that the Forest Service is no longer seriously considering: leaving things the way they have been on the ground for decades, with no enforcement against the illegal OHV trails. 

Issues left unaddressed?

 

OHV advocates feel Forest Service discussions about the trail closures have ignored or failed to put enough emphasis several key issues.

Chief among them is the economic impact of OHV tourism on the coast. Of the estimated 1.1 million annual visitors to the dunes recreation area, 650,000 are OHV users. Many of those individuals buy equipment and fuel at local stores, while spending nights and eating in nearby hotels and restaurants.

The Lane, Douglas, and Coos county boards of commissioners recently stressed the financial boost of OHV activity in letters they sent to the Forest Service.

"That's a huge part of the coastal economy right now," said Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich at a board meeting last week.

Forest Service officials say they aren't downplaying that impact, but they don't believe the trail closures would change the overall volume of OHV ridership much. OHV users warned that their numbers would drop after both the alcohol ban and the camping restrictions, Northrup said, but no noticeable drop-off occurred in either instance.

"We think a change in the price of gas would have more of an effect than any (trail closure) alternative we could choose," he said.

The other issue is safety. Serious accidents and minor collisions occur fairly regularly on the dunes. A smaller area for OHVs to use means a higher likelihood of accidents, riders say.

The sheriffs of Lane, Douglas and Coos county sent a public comment to the Forest Service that stresses this concern.

"There are many public safety issues that need to be accurately shared and discussed," the letter reads.

But the Forest Service's Davis says the dunes are rarely near the maximum capacity set by the agency of two OHVs per acre of open sand.

"We only approach capacity at big (riding) events," he said.

None of the proposed maps are "believed to be potentially dangerous to OHV riders, taking into consideration the inherently dangerous aspects of the activity," reads the Forest Service's draft impact statement for the project.

"The effects on rider safety of any of the alternatives being considered ... are essentially unknowable."

Appeals are expected

 

Any decision made by the Siuslaw Forest supervisor can — and most likely will — be appealed to the agency's regional office in Portland. The matter could then be appealed to court.

Oregon Wild's Heiken says he isn't "sure what the endgame will be."

While no local or state government agencies have any direct power to shape the Forest Service's decision, OHV advocate Phillips says that won't stop his group from drawing as much attention to the issue as he can.

"We will see the governor on this," he said. "Because in Oregon there are only two or three things that are huge national draws and this is one of them. We're losing and so is everyone else."

 

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