Touring MERA

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer June 13, 2012 02:45 pm

Sean Chambers, left, Union County’s Mount Emily Recreation Area coordinator, was the leader of an afternoon-long tour of the area for county officials  Tuesday. Pictured with Chambers are County Commissioner Mark Davidson and Planning Director Hanley Jenkins. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Sean Chambers, left, Union County’s Mount Emily Recreation Area coordinator, was the leader of an afternoon-long tour of the area for county officials Tuesday. Pictured with Chambers are County Commissioner Mark Davidson and Planning Director Hanley Jenkins. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Mount Emily Recreation Area:  ‘A lot more’s been done up here than you realize’ 

A group of Union County officials fired up all-terrain vehicles and went exploring Tuesday, riding the rugged trails of the Mount Emily Recreation Area and taking in some spectacular sights along the way. 

Led by MERA Coordinator Sean Chambers, the group including county Commissioners Bill Rosholt, Mark Davidson and Steve McClure took off from the MERA’s Fox Hill Road trailhead and stayed gone most of the afternoon.

They climbed trails to the top of the mountain, experienced sprawling views from the ridge tops and checked out recent improvements done by volunteers and county workers.

When the tour ended, McClure, for one, expressed satisfaction with MERA’s progress.

“A lot more’s been done up here than you realize,” he said.

Union County bought the 3,700-acre property from Forest Capital Partners in 2008 and made it into a multi-use recreation area open to all.

Now in it its fourth year as a public facility, MERA offers a wide range of motorized and non-motorized, off-highway recreational opportunities. It’s a popular destination for ATV and motorcycle riders, mountain bikers, hikers, berry pickers and more.

First stop on Tuesday’s tour was the ATV training course being built near the Fox Hill trailhead. Chambers said construction of the course started two weeks ago on a site that was formerly a campground for Boy Scouts and other groups.

“Already it’s pretty flat and level, not too bumpy. We’ll try this for awhile and improve it as we go along,” he said.

Funded by an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department grant, the course will be used to teach youngsters 16 and younger about off-road ATV and motorcycle riding. 

A little further on, the tour stopped at Onion Flats, where Chambers talked about a grant-funded cultural resources study that is nearing completion on the MERA. The area-wide study, identifying places of historical significance, is a requirement of the state.

Chambers said that some scant evidence of American Indian tool-making was found at Onion Flats. County Planning Director Hanley Jenkins, also along on the tour, said that trails and other facilities will not be built on such sites.

“Our intention is to avoid rather than try and mitigate cultural sites,” Jenkins said.

The 3,700-acre MERA includes about 50 miles of trails and roads that existed prior to purchase of the land by the county. Tuesday’s tour ran basically south to north over the property, from the Fox Hill trailhead to the Lower and upper Igo Lane trailheads at the other end. Climbing to elevations above 6,000 feet, the group experienced ATV riding on trails ranging from easy to very difficult. 

The tour strayed off the MERA and on to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, stopping at a communications site sporting eight towers owned by private and public entities. County Emergency Services Officer J.B. Brock said all of Union County’s 9-1-1 communications are routed to the county’s 120-foot tower on the property.

“We used to be the tallest one, but then Verizon put in one that’s 140 feet,” Brock said. He added that at an elevation of 6,200 feet, the Mount Emily location offers excellent radio coverage for the entire county.

At the east end of the MERA, the tour visited the Lower Igo and Upper Igo Lane trailheads, areas built and improved over the last couple of years by volunteers and county workers. The Lower Igo Lane trailhead is an access point for non-motorized uses, while the Upper Igo allows access for both motorized and non-motorized uses.

Jenkins said the purchase of easements from private landowners allowed the county to build a Lower Igo Lane trailhead with room for horse trailers to turn around. 

He said that has reduced complaints from homeowners in the area whose driveways were often used for that purpose. 

Both Upper and Lower Igo also have room enough for people to park their vehicles and leave them for treks into the MERA.

Chambers said one man instrumental in construction work on the Lower Igo trailhead work was John Rysdam, a public works employee who was killed Feb. 28 in a highway accident near Elgin.

Chambers said Rysdam worked hard leveling and grading the Lower Igo trailhead, and that the county plans to honor his contribution.

“We’re talking about a memorial for him here,” he said.

On the way back to Fox Hill, the tour stopped at the Owsley Canyon trailhead, a spacious spot being built with the horseback recreationist in mind. Under construction there is a wide loop for horse trailers.

The land at the Owsley Canyon site at the trailhead has been cleared and the basic roadwork’s been completed. Vaulted toilets have already been installed at the site, and Chambers said there are plans to add other amenities for day use picnickers. 

Other people taking part in Tuesday’s tour were County Administrative Officer Shelley Burgess and Public Works Director Doug Wright.