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ATVs ON TRAIL SPARK SUIT
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
A trail more than a mile above the Snake River has become a topic of controversy.
Adventurers driving ATVs and four-wheel-drive rigs join hikers and horseback riders along the 16-mile Lord Flat Trail as it meanders along the divide between the Snake and Imnaha rivers.
The motor vehicles have caused the controversy, as some believe they are driving into the wilderness area. The Hells Canyon Preservation Council has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to stop motorists from driving on the trail.
Bret Brownscombe of the preservation council said recently his organization has tried without success to persuade the Forest Service to close the trail.
The Forest Service agrees that motor vehicles use the trail but denies that any part of the trail enters the wilderness area. Federal law prohibits motor vehicle travel within any wilderness.
"This road is legally open to motorized use," said John Denne, spokesman for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. "It is not in the wilderness area to our knowledge. Basically it's a designated route."
The 16-mile road is accessible only to ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearances.
The council alleges that the Forest Service deviated from the original map that laid the wilderness boundary line along the hydrologic divide between the drainages of the Snake and Imnaha rivers. Brownscombe said he has tried without success to get a copy of the 1978 map.
The Forest Service admitted in 1989 that a portion of the trail entered the wilderness at several points, he said.
"For three years, it was closed to motorized traffic," Brownscombe said. "In 1992, the Forest Service relocated part of the trail at the Warnock Corral but didn't address the whole part that goes into the wilderness."
Whether the trail actually enters the wilderness is critical to the council's lawsuit, but other users have concerns about motor traffic moving through an area that provides summer grazing for deer and elk.
"From a wildlife perspective, that rim represents the highest elevation in that area for big game to go in the summer," said Mark Henjum of the La Grande office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's extremely lush, excellent habitat for calving and fawning Â— it has all the attributes for wildlife habitat."
Research into the movement of elk and deer, including a study at the Starkey Experimental Forest, has shown that elk will move away from roads used by motor vehicles.
"We need to have some of this rim not open to people," Henjum said. "We support less traffic and less motorized traffic, but we understand this is a difficult situation for the Forest Service."
The road was developed by stockmen during the early 20th century, said Vic Coggins, an ODFW official in Enterprise. Coggins, too, is concerned about ATVs and four-wheel-drive
"Motorized traffic can displace (elk) into areas where they would be more vulnerable to predation in the canyons," he said. "If they're not disturbed, they tend to stay up there. If there is much traffic, they have to go away from the road."
Scott Stouder, a member of the Oregon Hunters Association, said he has seen "a lot of tracks where ATVs had been off the road. I also saw a trail going around a sign that said, Â‘Wilderness boundary. No ATV traffic.' "
The Forest Service's Denne disagrees that ATV riders violate the wilderness boundary along the divide.
"The information we have is that trespass is low to nonexistent, contrary to what (the preservation council) would have you believe," Denne said. "We do have other areas in the forest where trespass is a high concern, but this is not one of those areas."
Denne said the forest is "pretty well aware" of the concerns expressed by the ODFW.
The Wallowa-Whitman has been drafting a new management plan for the Hells Canyon Recreation Area, which includes the wilderness, for about three years. The plan, now undergoing consultation with federal regulatory agencies, may be finished by the end of the year.
Denne said that he could not comment on how the forest will change its management to improve wildlife habitat, but he said, "We believe we have addressed (ODFW) concerns."