BEND, Ore. - Although 137 miles of off-highway vehicle trails have been approved to be built in the Ochoco National Forest, a number of groups have already filed lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service, challenging the plan.
Most recently, the Oregon Hunters Association filed suit against the Forest Service, saying the OHV trails will jeopardize the elk habitat and population.
The controversy stems from a change in policy in 2005, when the U.S. Forest Service started requiring national forests to identify and designate roads and trails that are open to motor vehicles -- and at the same time, to ban any use outside of those systems, according to Patrick Lair, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest.
"We recognized that OHV riders were going to lose a lot of recreation opportunity. Something like 85 percent of the forest became off-limits," Lair said Tuesday.
That's when the Ochoco forest began looking at a proposal to create a trail system specially for OHV riders.
But the reception to the proposal has been less than enthusiastic.
Bill Littlefield, president of the OHA's Bend Chapter, said the trails will negatively impact the elk in the area.
"The expectation and the research supports this: If they implement widely used and commonly used OHV trails in the summertime, in the habitat where elk prefer to be, then the elk will leave," he said.
The Oregon Hunters Association's lawsuit claims the off-road trails will push elk out of their natural habitat, disrupt calving season and ultimately take a toll on the elk population.
"We actually are using the Forest Service's own research and their published papers," Littlefield said. "They've been ignoring that and referring to other research that's been done in other states, but they've been ignoring research that's been done here in Oregon."
The Forest Service recognizes that research as being applicable, but says the goal is to consolidate OHV riders, according to Lair.
"Actually, the intent is to create more wildlife security by designating one system, instead of having people go all over the place." he said.
If the project goes through, the 137-mile trail system would include 84 miles of existing roads and would be open from June 1 through Sept. 30.
Several other groups, including the Sierra Club, Central Oregon Land Watch, Wild Earth Guardians and Oregon Wild, have filed legal challenges to the OHV trails plan.
It's also the topic of Tuesday's KTVZ.COM Poll: Who do you side with in the dispute? The hunters, the off-roaders or the environmentalists? Find the poll halfway down the right side of our home page.