Growth in Central Oregon continues to boom. But what does that mean for the region’s public lands? The Lemon Gulch trail system is a proposal for a roughly 50-mile mountain bike trail system that would run through Ochoco National Forest.
It’s one piece of a larger plan brought forth by Ochoco Trails, a coalition of mountain bikers, equestrians and other outdoor groups. Travis Holman is a member of Ochoco Trails and the vice president of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance, a group that works on mountain bike trail stewardship. He joins us with details on the system and the importance of compromise and collaboration when working on forest projects.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: The fast growing Central Oregon region is hungry for new outdoor recreational opportunities, but there’s only so much public land and a lot of people want to use it for a lot of different reasons. A couple of years ago, the Ochoco National Forest unveiled a proposal to build about 50 miles of bike trails within the forest. The problem: Nearby ranchers graze their cattle there and they say bikes and cattle sometimes don’t mix. Travis Holman is the president of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance. He’s also a member of Ochoco Trails which collaborated with the forest on the bike trail project and he joins us now. Travis, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Travis Holman: Hi Geoff. Thanks for having me.
Norcross: So this is called the Lemon Gulch Trail [System] Project. It would be on the west side of the Ochoco Forest, about 20 miles from Prineville. Why is that a good spot for a bike trail network?
Holman: We looked at a handful of different areas to propose a trail network. And Lemon Gulch was a great candidate, from a mountain biker perspective, because it’s a lot closer to town than a lot of the other spots in the Ochocos, the terrain out there was really well suited to the kind of trails we wanted to build, and it’s a fairly confined small area that we can fit in a lot of trail miles.
Norcross: Why is it important for there to be a mountain bike trail in the Ochoco to begin with?
Holman: There are a handful of trails out there that we can ride. But, over time the usership has gone up and we see more conflicts on some of the multi-use trails with equestrians and hikers.. and mountain bikers. So we wanted to try and solve that conflict. One of the best ways to do that is to kind of move the mountain bikers more to a specific area, so there’s less of them on the other trails.
Norcross: I should clarify something. I called you the president of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance. [Holman laughs] You’re the vice president, but still it’s good to have you. What kind of benefits do you think this trail will provide?
Holman: To a town like Prineville.. Prineville is one of the poorest communities in Oregon. Mountain biking, and cycling in general, brings huge economic benefits to communities like this. An example is in Oakridge which is a kind of a mountain bike hot spot now. They estimate that mountain bikers spend $2.5 to $5 million a year in that town. It’s like 3,200 people I think. So, the economic benefit to Prineville is huge as well as just the health benefits to people having this opportunity to be able to go ride close by.
Norcross: We reached out to some of the nearby ranchers. None of them wanted to speak with us, but I’ve read some of their concerns. One is the potential for collisions between cyclists and cattle. How likely is that?
Holman: [Laughs] I’ve never heard of that happening, so it seems pretty unlikely. One of the things that we’ve tried to get across is mountain bikes and cattle share trails all over; in Central Oregon, around Oregon, Washington, Canada, Utah, everywhere. Anywhere there’s cattle, you’re going to probably have mountain bike trails sharing the land with them.
Norcross: Another is the fear that the presence of cyclists could drive cattle into areas they shouldn’t be, like critical waterways that could then become damaged, and then the people holding the grazing rights could be in jeopardy of losing them. What about that concern?
Holman: Sure. Things like this, we’ve been trying since this conflict kind of arose, we’ve been hoping to be able to sit down with the ranchers. Because we, mountain bikers, don’t have specific knowledge [about] cattle, the flow of the cattle and whatnot. So, we’ve been trying to get the opportunity to sit down with them and look at the trails that we’ve put on the map, that we’ve proposed, and figure out how we can move those around or reduce miles, whatever we need to do, to address any kind of specific concerns they might have.
Norcross: You’ve been collaborating with these ranchers. How has that partnership been working out?
Holman: Well, we’ve been trying to collaborate with these ranchers. With Ochoco Trails -- this group formed primarily as a collaboration with trail users, so members include Oregon Equestrian Trails, Back Country Horsemen, Oregon Hunters Association, Oregon Wild, things like that -- we did; there was actually one of the ranchers on that group while we’re developing this plan. And we have been able to discuss with them some of the issues. However, their kind of cattle use on this piece of land is minimal compared to one of the other ranchers. So we can only go so far with that.
Norcross: Yeah. Well, these families have had grazing permits in the forest, some of them for decades. So, are you sensitive to their concerns?
Holman: Yeah, certainly. We’ve never wanted to push them off the land. That was never, never our intention at all. We just really want to be able to work with them and figure out how to mitigate any concerns that they have.
Norcross: Travis, the Forest Service appears to have tapped the brakes on this project because there’s a lot to sort through here. How confident are you that these trails are going to get built?
Holman: At this point we really don’t know. We’re not any more privy to the Forest Service, what’s going on behind the scenes, than anybody else. I think that legally they have to publish their NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] results a year after they started, so that’s around March 2022. So we’ll know then. But, at this point, we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out.
Norcross: Okay, well, when that NEPA gets published next year, what then?
Holman: Well, there’s a lot of different possibilities. If we get the go ahead to start developing these trails, it’s most likely it would be like a phased in thing that wouldn’t just be all the trails all at once. There’s also a veg management, timber harvest thing happening out there -- or likely going to happen out there -- so we would have to navigate that project as well. But we could start, at least raising money for the trails, to get them built and hopefully soon start getting stuff on the ground.
Norcross: More people in the forest, even if they are on bikes, means maybe the possibility of wildfire or at least an increased danger. How does that figure into your conversations that you’re having right now?
Holman: Yeah. Again, it’s not really an area of my expertise. I would have to rely on the Forest Service to make judgments on that kind of thing. I don’t know that increased mountain bikes actually leads to more fires. I’ve never seen anything to suggest that. In fact, in Bend, even just this year, a wildfire was stopped before it got started because mountain bikers spotted it.
Norcross: More broadly. What do you want Oregonians to know about the value of these types of projects?
Holman: I think it’s important to point out that this is public land and we want to share it with everybody that needs to share it. So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do. In a place like Prineville, it’s really important to have this kind of tourism and build on it. So, go visit the smaller areas and recreate there and bring money to their economies.
Norcross: Yeah, well here in Oregon, we are blessed with so much public land and I’m sure there are a lot of people who are interested in increasing access to it, whether it’s on bikes or whether on foot or on horseback. What does your experience say about what it’s like to try to increase access to a public land like this?
Holman: This process has been challenging for sure. We started working on this in 2017 through Ochoco Trails. The proposal that we gave to the Forest Service also includes equestrian and hiking trails, not just mountain bike trails. But yeah, we’ve been working on it for over four years now. So, we really hope that this becomes a great example of how these different user groups can work together to make something happen.
Norcross: Travis Hollman, thanks so much.
Norcross: Travis Holeman is the vice president of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance and a member of Ochoco Trails.
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