Gibson Prairie off limits

Mount Hood National Forest bans ATV and dirt bikers from trails, allows horse riding

June 8, 2005

Frustrated by the sprawl of illegal trails in the Gibson Prairie area, the Mount Hood National Forest issued a two-year closure order that will ban the usage of those trails by motorized dirt bikes or All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs). The order became effective on Friday.

Now the National Forest can penalize any individual for riding the trails with a $5,000 fine, the same penance it can impose on a person for building an illegal trail in the forest.

"We had posted that it was illegal to build trails and that didn't stop people from building them," said Kevin Slagle, recreation manager at Mount Hood National Forest. "They have continued to use these and open more trails."

Slagle estimates illegal trail builders have constructed at least 25 to 30 miles of trail, half of which they have constructed since the National Forest first discovered and began closing them off in October 2004.

"It's been an organized effort," Slagle said. "Somebody has gone in there and mapped out a trail system, flagged it on the ground and cut it from the inside out."

Shortly after the National Forest barricaded the trails by laying fallen trees across them, user groups began urging forest officials to adopt and manage the trails.

"It's extremely disappointing that they are not working as hard to put trails in as much as they are working hard to take the trails out," said Kevin Eakins, a Columbia Gorge resident who says he has ridden dirt bikes in the area for seven years.

The Hood River and Barlow ranger districts together offer about 450 miles of trail; only 50 miles on three main trails are available to dirt bikers.

The Mount Hood National Forest has 978 miles of trail, only 70 to 100 of which is available to dirt bikers and ATV riders.

"If we do that (adopt illegal trails) then we move on to the next 10,000-acre patch and build more trails," Slagle said. "We can't even maintain what we have."

A focus group comprised of representatives from a gamut of trail users, named the Mill Creek Collaborative Working Group, met twice in March to discuss how and where to build more trails that would be open to dirt bikers and ATV users.

Slagle said the National Forest would use the group's recommendation as a "starting point" for recreational trails. It expects that recommendation sometime this year.

So far, the group has considered creating a small loop trail in the Gibson Prairie system that would be open to dirt bikers and ATV riders, a larger loop trail open to horseback riders, hikers and mountain bikers and one horse-only trail.

The loop would create access to 15 miles of Gibson Prairie trail to ATV riders and dirt bikers by connecting existing trails, such as the Section Line.

The preliminary plan calls for the new construction of about four miles of trail.

Trail building is an expensive endeavor, however, ranging in expense from $5,000 to $50,000 per trail mile. Slagle expects the cost per mile of trail construction near Gibson Prairie to range in price from $5,000 to $10,000.

"The Gibson Prairie soil is soft, trees are not large and the ground is generally flat," he said. "It's as easy as it gets."

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