Hunting for OHV trails: An Intern's Tale

by Emma Gosser

As I stood in the middle of a dusty dirt road looking out across the Crooked River National Grasslands, I wondered how on earth I was going to find illegal ATV trails on this vast desert expanse. Though I knew there was enormous environmental importance to this landscape, to my untrained eyes there was nothing but sage, dirt, juniper and the occasional bird that flew across the skyline. Or so I thought. I soon discovered it was not hard to find illegal trails at all. They are everywhere. 

Illegal OHV trail heading into Wilderness

As part of my internship with Oregon Wild, I surveyed Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trail systems  in the high desert of central Oregon. The goal of this hot, dusty exercise was to gather evidence to help fight a Forest Service proposal for an ATV trail system that would cut right through the heart of the Ochoco Mountains. There is rampant illegal motorized traffic on the Ochoco National Forest, yet the Forest Service claims that if a designated ATV  trail system were in place, there would no longer be a problem of illegal ‘user-created’ trails criss-crossing the forest.  Part of my job was to prove them wrong. 
I thought finding illegal trails in the dry summer would be a difficult task. I assumed the dry dust in the grasslands would blow over the tire marks thus concealing all but the most devastating or fresh tracks. Boy was I wrong.  As I drove, biked, or walked many road miles I would frequently find the evidence I was looking for; deep ruts in the earth where ATV’s had turned off in search of a new adventure. These user created trails were everywhere, open wounds of dead dry grass and sagebrush that lacerated the landscape. These wounds will turn into scars that will not heal for years. I soon realized how delicate this ecosystem is, for one reckless user could leave a lasting imprint.

Illegal spur trail at Henderson Flat

After the Crooked River National Grasslands, I surveyed the Henderson Flat and Millican OHV areas, hopeful that the ATV users there would recreate responsibly and stay on the designated route. What I found did not reflect my hopes. Branching off curves and trail intersections were dozens of illegal trails. Managers of the area even tried cutting down trees or putting up closed tape to block people from going off trail. Instead, people just went around the trees or ripped right through the tape. Recent tire tracks bypassing a sign saying “AREA CLOSED - OHVs ARE PERMITTED ON DESIGNATED ROUTES ONLY,” made me incredibly sad for this place. Henderson Flat OHV area has 18 miles of maintained trails. Within just a small section of this 18-mile trail system, I found many illegal trails that were obvious to my untrained eye. If this user group ignores the rules here, how can we expect them to respect the rules elsewhere? Will designating the Ochoco Summit OHV trails system really be different?
Rewarding this user group that blatantly breaks the rules with new trails through the heart of our beloved Ochoco National Forest and through the proposed Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area is wrong. There is plenty of motorized access on our public lands. In central Oregon there are nearly 1,000 miles of designated trail miles on various sites. The Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests have a combined total of over 9,000 miles of mixed-use open roads to ride their heart outs on. To put that in perspective, if one was to drive for two weeks straight 24 hours a day at an average speed of 25 mph (the ATV speed limit on Oregon’s beaches) one would not be able to finish all the open roads and trails in central Oregon alone.  


Illegal roads have proliferated from established trail systems like a festering wound.  If more trails are built, more illegal trails will be created. We should not incentivize new illegal trails. Instead, we need to protect this land for clean water, wildlife, and quiet recreation. 
I was born and raised in Oregon. I took this internship to help protect the land I love. Before this internship, like many Oregonians, I believed that Oregon’s natural areas were well protected.  As I have witnessed through the surveying of roads for illegal trails, our natural areas need our help. I spent the summer hiking through the Ochoco Mountains old growth forests, taking in the solitude and beauty of the area.  Before this internship I hardly knew where the Ochocos were, now they are one of my favorite places in Oregon. The Ochocos now more than ever need to be protected against this kind of high impact use.