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BLM seeks help mediating OHV flap at Johns Peak

After decades of wrangling with controversy over off-highway-vehicle use on Timber Mountain/Johns Peak, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has brought in outside help.

Since 1995, the agency's Medford District has been developing a management plan for the area but has been stymied by the seemingly opposing concerns of OHV enthusiasts, horse riders, hikers, environmentalists and private property owners.

The BLM recently retained the Institute for Conflict Management Inc. through Portland State University's Oregon Consensus Program to smooth the way for conflict resolution.

John Gerritsma, BLM field manager for the Ashland Resource Area and the one who initiated the conflict-resolution effort, believes there is enough common ground to plant the seeds of collaboration.

"After meeting with various groups over the last couple of years, I've got a sense there was more agreement than people were willing to let on," he said.

"We felt that maybe we could enter into an informal and guided process to come up with a resolution," he added. "Our hope is that once people start talking to each other, ideas will be generated and positions will soften so we can move forward."

The area west of Jacksonville has 376 miles of roads and trails, with 186 miles on public land and 190 miles on private land. Some OHV opponents insist the vehicles don't mix with other forms of recreation, the environment and local land owners. But supporters object to efforts to reduce the riding area, countering it has been used for riding dirt bikes and similar vehicles since the 1960s.

Late last year, representatives of the institute interviewed nearly two dozen stakeholders to assess their concerns. From those interviews, it determined the status quo is not working but the time is ripe to develop a plan that is broadly acceptable, according to a December report to the BLM.

"There is general, albeit reluctant recognition, that somewhere there is an appropriate balance between protection of the environment, attention to neighborhood livability and providing OHV recreation facilities," the report noted.

"In order to succeed, there is a need to identify mutually agreeable goals, plan thoroughly, implement fairly, communicate clearly and create an effective system of enforcement and accountability," it added later in the 15-page report.

The institute urged the creation of an 11-member working group, including two members representing citizens, two from environmental groups, two from industrial timber owners and two from the Motorcycle Riders Association, which owns some 500 acres in the area. There also will be one nonvoting member each from the BLM, the city of Jacksonville and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

The group will hold its first meeting Saturday at the Jacksonville library, followed by four more sessions through June. The five meetings are open to the public.

"The bottom line is that what they come up with will receive heavy consideration in the management of the Johns Peak area," Gerritsma said, adding it will be an informal, open process.

"This is not an arbitration," he stressed, noting the goal of the facilitators is simply to move the process forward. "They are well experienced in very difficult issues."

Steve Croucher, president of the Motorcycle Riders Association, is cautiously optimistic about the effort.

"But I really don't know how it is going to come out," he said. "I'm always kind of optimistic, but I've never been through a process like this before. It will be a learning experience for us all.

"If there is a positive outcome that everyone could agree on, that would be fantastic," he added.

Jack Duggan, who owns land near Timber Mountain and who will be a member of the working group as a local citizen, thinks it will be an uphill climb to reach consensus.

"I'm optimistic it will be an interesting process but I'm not optimistic the BLM will make much in the way of change," he said.

"What I would hope to see happen is that they will realize this is the wrong place for an OHV emphasis area."

Ken Cummngs, regional manager for Forest Capital Partners, which has more than 3,000 acres of timberland in the area, says additional law enforcement is needed to stop violators from riding where they aren't allowed.

"Right now, they are going to ride on our land whether I like it or not," he said. "More law enforcement would be a key cornerstone to help the BLM to keep the riders in the areas identified for riding."

Joseph Vaile, representing the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, thinks the collaborative effort is worth a try.

"I'm always hopeful that bringing people together to work toward compromise is better than not talking," he said. "But it is a really complicated issue, one that needs to be resolved for the whole district. We would like to see a plan that shows where off-road vehicles ought to be able to go, and where there ought to be limitations."

Like Cummings, he believes there needs to be increased law enforcement of those who continually violate the laws governing OHV use.

"A few bad actors can spoil it for everybody," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.