Suit disputes plan for ATV road |
A Forest Service idea for a dunes access road draws conservationists’ objections
By Mark Baker
Appeared in print: Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009
NORTH BEND — Several environmental groups, including Cascadia Wildlands of Eugene, are suing the U.S. Forest Service over a proposed mile-long access road the agency wants to build for off-highway and all-terrain vehicles such as dune buggies and Jeeps in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area about six miles north of North Bend.
Cascadia Wildlands, Umpqua Watersheds of Roseburg, Wildlands CPR of Missoula, Mont., Oregon Wild and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Eugene against the Forest Service and the rock road proposed last spring by one of its districts, the Siuslaw National Forest, which manages the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area that stretches from Florence to Coos Bay.
Illegal off-road vehicle drivers have already effectively carved the roadway through the federal land off Highway 101, taking short cuts to the coastal dunes, said Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands.
“The road is basically already there because of past illegal activity,” Laughlin said. Off-highway vehicle — OHV — users drive across federal lands between the 135-acre Coos County-operated Riley Ranch County Park — billed as a mecca for ATV users when it opened in 2006 — near the community of Hauser, about six miles north of North Bend, and the sand dunes.
“We don’t have a problem with sanctioning OHV use in designated areas,” Laughlin said. “But this area has been trashed by illegal use. And we believe it’s in the best interest of Oregonians to protect the sensitive wildlife and vegetation in this area.”
The tract where the road would run had never been designated for OHV and ATV use in the Forest Service’s long-standing rules for the area, so that agency had to go in and change the designation in order to approve the road.
The environmental groups argue that the proposed road is improper because it would go through a federal designated roadless area, a category of area where the federal government has banned new road construction.
The Forest Service approved the road in April, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs appealed in June, but the Forest Service denied the appeal in July. The federal agency has said the new road is permissable in an official roadless area because the ban on new roads applies only to logging roads intended to harvest timber, not to roads for other vehicles.
Joni Quarnstrom, a spokeswoman with the Siuslaw National Forest in Corvallis, would not comment on the lawsuit, other than to say the building of the road will depend on the lawsuit’s outcome. She said the access road would not be built on a route currently taken by OHV users, but “would largely follow a road created when the area was private land.”
Members of Oregon Wild, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting Oregon lands, wildlife and waters, and the Center for Biological Diversity, regularly use the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area for hiking, recreation and bird watching, according to the lawsuit.
The proposed road is “very upsetting to a lot of people,” said Sarah Jane Brown, an attorney with the Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups. By building the road, the Forest Service would be legitimizing illegal OHV activity, she said.
The 31,500-acre Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area already has 7,350 acres designated for use by off-road vehicles, Laughlin said.
The 1994 Oregon Dunes Management Plan says that OHV routes had to be designated within three years of the plan’s approval, or not at all, according to the lawsuit. The federal agency’s new designation of the land at this late date is illegal, the lawsuit alleges.
The Forest Service plans to build the road and also has authorized construction of a bridge to take vehicles over a railroad track that lies about halfway along the proposed route, the lawsuit says. The Forest Service said one benefit of the bridge is that it would be safer for OHV users who have created their own dangerous routes across the railroad tracks.
The road project violates National Environmental Policy Act by failing to disclose and analyze the impacts of the project, according to the lawsuit. “We just want the existing plan honored,” Laughlin said. The road “will further exacerbate illegal activity and further trash this globally recognized resource. I think it’s important to remember that the awe-inspiring dunes are one of the things that makes Oregon special. We believe it’s time to draw a line in the sand.”
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