The Mt. Hood National Forest enacted an off-highway vehicle management plan at the end of 2010 that prohibits OHV use on all MHNF lands unless designated otherwise. The decision, which reverses the agency's longstanding policy of "open unless posted closed," allows for no OHV use on its lands in Hood River County.
The ruling applies to all non-licensed motorized vehicles on all roads, trails and acreage in the MHNF. On/off-road vehicles that are licensed and street-legal do not apply and will still be able to use MHNF roads.
As forests thaw and dry out after a long, wet winter and spring, a rainbow of recreation will return to the roads and trails that weave through the landscape. Following the decision, signed in the fall by Forest Supervisor Gary Larson, the use of vehicles like dirt bikes and four-wheelers on any MHNF land, is only legal on designated roads in three areas; LaDee Flats in the Clackamas Wilderness southwest of Mount Hood, McCubbins Gulch in the White River area off Hwy. 26 and Rock Creek in the eastern forest near Rock Creek Reservoir.
A fourth area -- containing 5.5 miles of OHV routes near Kingsley Reservoir in Hood River County -- was on the original draft plan but was removed after an appeals process resulting in a swap to add more mileage to the Rock Creek system.
Enforcement of the new policy will take some time and will remain flexible for the near future.
"Since this is a big change, we're really emphasizing the educational aspect," said Daina Bambe, district ranger, Hood River Ranger District. "If we identify repeat offenders, we will have law enforcement follow up with it."
Reasoning behind the change in policy is explained in an August, 2010 Record of Decision. It cites the combination of an extensive road system created by timber harvest that is now deteriorating due to decreased timber sales and reduced funding for road maintenance with continued weather wear and an increase in forest recreation.
"Roads constructed to support decades of timber harvesting on the Mt. Hood National Forest has created an extensive legacy road system, which spans approximately 3,383 miles," the decision states. "Maintaining this vast road system has largely been funded by Congressional appropriations for timber sales. However, as timber harvesting has been reduced from 370 million board feet in 1990 to about 25 million board feet today, road maintenance funding has dramatically reduced as well. While reduced timber traffic has reduced maintenance needs, the maintenance needs associated with recreation and weather have not decreased."
The decision - which effectively reduced the mileage of routes open to OHV use from about 2,300 miles to about 150 miles, and cross-country use from approximately 395,000 acres to zero - is being praised by some as a move toward protecting the forest and its resources, while others are disappointed in the sweeping closure of land, roads and trails that have been accessible for many years.
"This decision is a step in the right direction for protecting our drinking water and a victory for the hikers, campers and anglers who love Mount Hood," Lori Ann Burd, Restore Mt. Hood campaign manager, said following the decision.
Tom Niemela, Oregon Motorcycle Riders Association officer and organizer of the annual Black Dog Ride, expressed his frustration over the ruling.
"I was there since the onset of the planning process," he said. "The Forest Service has continued to pull back and pull back from what was originally talked about; what OHV users are allowed now is chump change compared to what was on the table in the beginning. The plan has basically thrown the OHV community under the bus."
In Hood River County, the decision to exclude all MHNF property from the plan means OHV users will either have to drive out-of-county to one of the three defined areas, or ride locally on county property.
"It's disappointing to say the least," Columbia Gorge Off-Road Association president Rick Higgins said after the decision. "As a group, we're for preserving the forests as well; but ... in Hood River County, it basically puts everything on County Forestry's system, and that's going to mean a lot bigger burden for them."
HRC Forestry has been working for several years with OHV users and the CGORA to coordinate efforts and establish a safe, legal and sustainable network of trails. Routes on county property in the Northwest Trails (Kingsley to Post Canyon), Middle Mountain and Pine Mont areas will not be affected by the decision, although they will likely see an increase in users.
"The decision definitely puts more pressure on the county," said Henry Buckalew, HRCFD trails supervisor. "It will push a lot more users on the county system. People need good, safe areas to ride, and we will do the best we can to accommodate that."