Thirteen sites covering more than 100,000 acres in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District are being considered for potential off-highway vehicle use.

Thirteen sites covering more than 100,000 acres in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District are being considered for potential off-highway vehicle (OHV) use.

But officials stress they have no total acreage in mind for the "emphasis areas" where operators of all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and larger four-wheel-drive vehicles will be able to flex their mechanical muscles.

"We're trying to find a balance of providing recreational opportunities to meet the demand out there but do it in a way that includes environmental and social considerations," explained district manager Tim Reuwsaat.

The potential OHV emphasis areas covering 100,751 acres are included in the agency's proposed draft Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR), which will serve as a new resource management guide for the 800,000-plus acre district.

Comments on that plan will be accepted through Dec. 10. However, although the WOPR is expected to be finalized next year, fine-tuning the OHV emphasis areas isn't expected for five years down the road, officials said.

"Essentially, what we did was put in the mix the areas being utilized now," Reuwsaat said. "What we want to do in order to make a reasoned choice is to look at a complete analysis — soils, water, wildlife, social issues.

"It's important for people to know, particularly those who live near those areas, we'll also be looking at the proximity to rural residences," he added.

The goal, he reiterated, is to find a balance for the many recreational uses on the district which covers Southwest Oregon in a checkerboard pattern.

During public meetings held earlier this year to discuss the WOPR, the dominant topic has been OHV use, not timber harvests or other recreational uses, said district spokesman Jim Whittington.

"As in most parts of the West, we have a group of users who enjoy doing OHV stuff out in the woods," he said. "But with a checkerboard property pattern like we have, you also have a lot of people who live next door. We also have a lot of other competing uses.

"The values they expect of those lands aren't always the same as those of the OHV users," he added. "You have people there who don't want the noise."

Medford resident Gene Bowling, an OHV enthusiast, figures it's a good idea to address the issue.

"If we leave some of those areas alone, they'll take care of themselves," he said. "But other areas need a little help."

He figures the agency needs to "ride herd' on the latter areas.

"We need to be a little bit more organized in some places," he said, although expressing concern the agency's personnel are spread too thin the adequately manage the areas. "They will need to get into the finer details on how to work this out."

Jacksonville area resident Hope Robertson, an avid hiker and horseback rider, agrees OHV users should have areas in the district where they can ride.

"There is definitely a need for places where OHVs can go — we do need to provide those areas," she said. "But there is also a vast number of hikers, horseback riders, hunters, bird-watchers and other non-motorized recreational users out there."

She noted the recreational section of the draft 1,606-page WOPR focuses on OHV use yet the BLM's own predictions conclude non-motorized recreational use will be far greater than OHV use.

Local OHV operators she has met while hiking and horse riding in the district have been responsible, she said.

"They stop when they see you riding a horse," she said. "But if you concentrate more than 100,000 acres for OHV use, it will be a destination for people from all over. The hills will be alive with the sound of OHVs. And that will destroy some the major values of living here: beauty and quiet.

"This whole thing should be taken off the drawing board and the BLM should come up with plan that is balanced," she added. "This is not balanced."

But Bill Freeland, the district's chief resource adviser, stresses the 13 areas listed are merely a starting point for the discussion. They are merely "potential" OHV emphasis areas at this point, he added.

Basically, the goal is to look at the potential OHV emphasis areas and determine how many of those sites as well as acreage are appropriate for the OHV use, he said.

"Of those areas, zero to thirteen might be appropriate," he said. "But some of those areas where there is a lot of natural resource damage occurring might not be designated (for OHV use)."

Noting there are many OHV emphasis areas on public lands around the West, Whittington doesn't believe similar sites created on the local district will become a mecca for off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

If one of the areas becomes officially designated for such use, that means the BLM will increase management to control the damage, Freeland said.

"Right now, these are just potential areas, not specific acreages," he said.

In addition to the three sites included in its 1994 resources management plan — Timber Mountain/Johns Peak near Jacksonville, Ferris Gulch in the Applegate Valley and Quartz Creek a few miles northwest of Grants Pass — the staff included 10 other sites currently popular with OHV users, he said.

"Part of that identification was also natural resource damage from OHV use," Freeland said. "We knew it was happening out there. To start protecting or restoring some of the areas that had been damaged, we needed to take a good look at it."

The WOPR project proved to be a good vehicle to study the issue, he said.

"The whole district will be looked at for three designations: open, closed or limited to designated roads and trails," Freeland stressed of OHV use. "That decision will be made in the WOPR."

In conjunction, the district needs to complete its general district transportation plan so that roads and trails are properly mapped, Freeland said.

"Whenever we talk about multiple use, it isn't everybody can do everything on every piece of land — it's a balancing act,' he said. "We know there are conflicts."

For instance, he noted he is a cross-country skier who also uses snowmobiles as a member of a ski patrol group. Yet many cross-country skiers don't much care for snowmobiles, he added.

"Special emphasis areas allow us to designate out what is available use so we can try to avoid that user conflict," he said.

Groups like the Motorcycle Riders Association of Southern Oregon are working with the agency and neighbors to create a "win-win" situation in the effort, he said.

But a final decision on final specifics regarding the potential OHV emphasis areas isn't expected until five years after the final WOPR is out, Freeland said.

"We need to do a lot more planning at a lower level — we will be looking at each piece of land in a lot more depth," he said. "That means we will be working with the public, the neighbors and the users in a collaborative fashion on OHV emphasis areas."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at pfattig@mailtribune.com