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Treading Violently

Emergency closure of the McKay Creek area has done little to decrease the impact of OHVs and ATVs

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Continued misuse of the McKay Creek area has included abandoned junk vehicles, trash, and continued deterioration of the area due to the use of OHVs and ATVs.

All of us living in Prineville and the rest of Crook County should consider ourselves lucky to be surrounded by so much public land where we can get outdoors and enjoy our favorite recreational activity. The Ochoco National Forest is virtually our backyard and it requires only minutes to be within the forest boundary.
   The Forest Service encourages multiple use but when that use starts impacting the land it gets everyone's attention. Such is the case with McKay Creek just north of Prineville. For the past several years, motorized recreational use has been increasing and causing resource damage throughout the drainage, which led the Forest Service to adopt an emergency closure of the area.
   The closure began December 1 and is in effect through May 21. Routes within the Emergency Closure Area open to motorized use include Forest Roads 27, 33, 2705, 2710, 325, 350, 3320 and the Green Mountain Trail. Dispersed camping is allowed up to 300 feet from open roads. Violation of the closure order is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine or imprisonment for up to six months, or both.
   Despite this closure, there have still been OHVs (off-highway vehicles, including ATVs, 4x4 trucks and dirt bikes) driving off-road and continuing to impact the riparian areas, wet meadows, hillsides and smaller streams flowing into McKay Creek. The damage is at least as bad as before the closure if not worse. According to Art Currier, district ranger on the Lookout Mountain Ranger District, the forest is taking a number of measures to try to curtail this illegal activity.
   The Forest Service has conducted "saturation patrols" recently where they brought in several other law enforcement officers and even an airplane. Several citations were issued and more of these patrols are planned in the future.
   Besides these special operations, Currier said he has increased patrolling the area with non-law enforcement personnel, constructed and purchased signs (and repaired or replaced signs after they were torn down) and worked with volunteers such as the Ochoco Trail Riders, an OHV group that has been out in the area every weekend doing their own patrolling.
   "Pickups are proudly driving the streets of Prineville displaying the mud on their vehicles from destroying public land as if to say `Hey, you didn't catch me,'" Currier explained. He said they have taken pictures of these mud-covered trucks and have run their license plates to identify the owners.
   "We have placed small video cameras, that are activated with motion detectors, at popular mud bogging spots," Currier said. "From the videos we can match the vehicles to the pictures we have taken to identify them. We have soil maps of the entire Ochoco National Forest that we can use to determine where the mud on a vehicle came from. This, along with the tire tracks at the damaged site, will help in the convictions."
   Currier went on to explain that this activity is illegal and a violation of federal law. He said violators will be prosecuted in Federal Court in Eugene or Portland to the fullest extent. Repeat violators are subject to jail time in the Federal prison in Washington. Most of the people the Forest Service has ticketed live in Prineville or other parts of Crook County.
   But these offenders are not the only ones to suffer from the illegal activity since it could lead to further restrictions for everyone. Currier said there could be more restrictions on where and how families can cut firewood, how hunters can use their pickups to retrieve game and where people can drive to get to their favorite camping spot.
   "The longer I deal with this issue the more I realize that it is just not a public land manager's problem but a social and community problem," Currier explained. "If it continues it will ultimately affect the businesses in Prineville. Who will want to come and live or visit and spend dollars if Prineville's backyard, the Ochoco National Forest, is a big garbage dump and mud bog?"
   Currier went on to say that his district has spent most of its recreation budget already this year and can't keep his recreation specialist on or hire two seasonal workers this summer to do trail maintenance and keep campgrounds clean. He noted that these seasonals are usually students.
   McKay Creek is receiving lots of use since it is so close to Prineville. However, it's about 19 miles from the center of Prineville (junction of Main and Third) to the Four Corners Staging Area of the Millican Valley Trail System south of town. It's about 18 miles to the upper parts of McKay Creek where a lot of the damage is being done.
   People are going to have to start making up their minds if they want to drive 20 miles out of town on legal trails with about 600 miles of access (Millican Valley OHV Trail System has 256 miles of trails and the East Fort Rock OHV Trail System has 318 miles of trails) or drive a similar distance up McKay, take their chances on getting caught driving on illegal trails, getting hefty fines and doing damage to the resources.
   The problems with having an extensive OHV trail system in a place like the McKay Creek compared with the two systems mentioned above are issues such as streams, springs, wetlands and wildlife habitat.
   The local chapter of the Sierra Club (Juniper Group) also has an interest in the McKay Creek issue. "As a Sierra Club representative, I think the damage up McKay due to OHVs has been well documented and it is absurd to reopen the closure at this date," said George Wilson. "The resource damage will only continue."
   What happens in the very headwaters of a stream affects everyone living downstream says Prineville resident Wayne Elmore, who runs his own riparian consulting business called Full Stream Consulting.
   "One of the things that people don't really understand is that water is not just important for life, it is life," said Elmore. He explained that water comes to us in the form of rain or snow and goes into the ground, and the condition of our creeks, rivers and wetlands determines how quickly water leaves.
   "The speed with which it leaves determines what kind of plant communities we have, what kind of water clarity we have and what kind of values we want to have such as fisheries, boating, aesthetics or municipal water. In the McKay drainage, the water runs off the land way too fast."
   Many years ago, Elmore says, it wasn't that way. "The water went into the ground and it came out over a five or six month period. Today, we've drained wetlands; we've done everything we can for the last 150-plus years in the west to get rid of water to the point that we got very, very good at it. Now we have to start thinking about how important this water is if we keep it here for livestock forage, for deer and elk habitat, for songbirds. It should be stored in wetlands and creek banks and it's not."
   According to Elmore, people simply turn their faucets on and expect water to be there and they don't understand the process of how they are able to do that. Another issue he brought up is sediment in streams, which affects fish and will be in the spotlight with the reintroductions of anadromous fish in the near future.
   There are plans to reintroduce steelhead into the McKay drainage next year and, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, as soon as either eggs or fry are placed in the stream, they are considered endangered species.
   Recently, Currier said he was driving through Prineville following a pickup with a sign in the back window that read "Tread Violently - It's only dirt"".
   "I would like to respond to that," said Currier. "It's NOT only dirt. It's my favorite camping and picnicking spot. It's my favorite place to look at wildflowers. It's my favorite place to see all the beauty of nature. It filters the water so the streams run clear. Please tread lightly so I too can enjoy the Ochoco National Forest."
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   Scott Staats is a freelance outdoors writer. His column can be read every Tuesday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.