Thursday, June 25, 2015

OHV impacts in the Wellington Butte Roadless Area

The view from Wellington Butte looking southeast to Ruch, Oregon in the Applegate Valley. The Wellington Butte Roadless Area was identified by the BLM as an area containing 5,711 acres of "lands with wilderness characteristics." Relatively intact, low-elevation habitat such as that found in the foothills of the Applegate Valley is increasingly rare and in desperate need of protection.

The Wellington Butte Roadless Area in the Middle Applegate River watershed is a wonderfully diverse and beautiful region. The region hosts a complex mosaic of chaparral, oak woodland, madrone groves, mixed conifer forest, and grasslands. The Wellington Butte Roadless Area has recently been identified in the BLM's Lands with Wilderness Characteristic Inventory (LWC) as one of the last significant roadless tracts of BLM land in western Oregon. Located directly above Ruch and Applegate, Oregon the region is the backdrop for much of the Middle Applegate Valley.

The northeastern boundary of the roadless area is also, unfortunately, directly adjacent to the boundary of the BLM's John's Peak/Timber Mountain OHV area. The John's Peak/ Timber Mountain OHV Area was designated in the 1995 Resource Management Plan as an OHV area, but the area remains somewhat elusive. In 1995 the agency designated the OHV area and now, twenty years later, has yet to designate official trails. This has led to the proliferation of unauthorized, user-created OHV trails and cross country routes. The area now supports 92 miles of unauthorized user-created routes that generate large volumes of erosion, sedimentation, soil compaction, vegetation loss, and conflicts between local residents, private landowners, and public land use groups such as hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and other forest users. In fact, in 2007, portions of the John's Peak/Timber Mountain OHV Area were closed to motorized vehicle use due to unacceptable environmental and resource impacts.

Today, OHV enthusiasts spilling out from the designated boundary of the John's Peak/Timber Mountain OHV Area have begun encroaching upon the largest roadless tract in the Middle Applegate Valley. Trails have been developed on the boundary of the roadless area and LWC; a few have nibbled at the edges and one controversial route cuts into the heart of the wild, unroaded region.

An example of unauthorized, user-created OHV trails and the damage they create. This is a dry meadow on the eastern edge of the Wellington Butte Roadless Area. OHV use has created severe impacts in the area at the head of China Gulch. Such damaging and irresponsible OHV use should be strongly discouraged by the BLM by enforcing a permanent motor vehicle closure in the area.

The worst OHV damage in the Wellington Butte Roadless Area emanates from China Gulch, a relatively small drainage north of Ruch, Oregon. The BLM road accessing China Gulch has been gated for many years, but OHV users have built routes around the road closure accessing the old mine road that winds up China Gulch to China Gulch Saddle. Numerous unauthorized, user-created trails have also been developed. A large, dry meadow in upper China Gulch has been turned into a "play area," where OHV tracks and user-created trails riddle the meadow with deep, compacted ruts. Trails wind back and forth across the meadow, the gulch, and up hill climbs adjacent to the meadow system. Impacts are significant and growing, while the BLM simply looks the other way. If this meadow system and the adjacent user-created trails are to be closed, the public must pressure the BLM to act. 

The meadow is located within the boundaries of the Wellington Butte Roadless Area and LWC, yet is also within the proposed boundaries of the John's Peak/Timber Mountain OHV Area. Protection of this meadow and the area's wilderness characteristics should be a high priority and would necessitate removal of the upper China Gulch area from the John's Peak Timber Mountain OHV Area. It would also necessitate aggressive OHV closure and meaningful enforcement of that closure. Noxious weed removal, meadow restoration, soil stabilization and active route decommissioning would also be necessary. 

On the flip side, public access and enjoyment of the area could be facilitated by developing a non-motorized trail. The trail could be created by simply using the existing decommissioned roadbed as a link to the Applegate Ridge Trail (ART), a non-motorized trail system proposed by the Applegate Trails Association (ATA) that would connect Grants Pass to Jacksonville, Oregon across the high ridgeline divide between the Rogue and Applegate Rivers. This would provide appropriate public access and also a public presence to make sure OHV traffic does not again dominate and degrade this important landscape.

This is a recent Google Earth image of the meadows at the top of China Gulch. The area is within an area identified as having wilderness characteristics, yet unauthorized, user-created OHV trails are severely impacting wilderness characteristics, native plant communities, hydrology, water quality, soils, wildlife habitat, the area's scenic nature, and the potential enjoyment of the area by other, more low impact visitors. The meadow badly needs a permanent OHV closure and meadow restoration; it should be managed for non-motorized recreation and designated as a portion of the Applegate Ridge Trail.

OHV ruts up to 4' deep on the ridgeline above China Gulch.
Another area within the Wellington Butte Roadless Area that is currently subjected to unauthorized and inappropriate OHV use is the high ridgeline dividing Long Gulch and the Balls Branch of Humbug Creek from Forest Creek. This high divide creates much of the roadless area's northern eastern boundary. OHV trails have penetrated the area, traveling roughly four miles across the ridgeline from the spectacular headwaters of the Balls Branch, over Long Gulch Saddle, to China Gulch Saddle. The route includes long stretches in open, grassy terrain very susceptible to cross country travel. This OHV route has damaged riparian areas in the upper portions of the Balls Branch of Humbug Creek, and it has very steep erosive sections that are rutted up to 4' deep, impacting hydrology and soil stability on the ridgeline above China Gulch. This long ridgeline route overlaps very closely with the proposed Applegate Ridge Trail. The ART would provide for public access and recreation that is more consistent with the region's ecological values and the area's beautiful wilderness character. The current OHV route should be closed to all motorized use and a new, more sustainable non-motorized trail should be designated and built across the high ridgeline as a vital link in the Applegate Ridge Trail system.
A view from the Wellington Mine Road.

OHV users have also taken to driving the long abandoned Wellington Mine Road, known to local hikers as the "Heart Trail," because it cuts straight through the heart of the Wellington Butte Roadless Area. This road was developed to provide access to a long defunct hard rock mine in the lower Humbug Creek drainage.  

On October 31, 2012, the road was "closed" to motorized use by BLM District Manager John Gerritsma. With broad-based community support, the local non-profit, Applegate Trails Association (ATA) raised funds to install two road closure devices and decommission the associated user-created trail leading into the Wellington Butte Roadless Area.  Work was completed on November 8, 2012 by volunteers facilitated through ATA. 

By November 26, 2012, District Manager John Gerritsma could not enforce or support the closure of the Wellington Mine Road because he had not followed proper road closure procedures, did not contact the Medford Motorcycle Riders Association (MRA) or the Association of O&C Counties regarding the closure, and had not provided an adequate alternative route for exclusive motorcycle use in exchange for the closure. He had also been receiving complaints from MRA members who wanted to ride OHVs through the wildlands. 

The BLM moved one of the road closure devices in December of 2012, opening the road to OHVs but not full sized vehicles. In August 2014, the remaining road closure barriers were physically moved without authorization by OHV enthusiasts, effectively reopening the Wellington Mine Road to all motorized traffic. This has left the "road" open by default and the issue has steadily become a major point of contention between motorized and non-motorized users in the area. 

The Wellington Mine Road is wide and erosive. In some places it is badly incised; soils have been compacted by dirt bike tires and washed with runoff into deep ruts. OHV related road runoff has also triggered a small landslide above numerous homes on lower Humbug Creek. The road travels through the heart of the wildland beneath forests of fir, ridges of chaparral and clearings of mountain mahogany. A few rare plant sites are also found adjacent to the road; one a rare orchid, Cypripedium fasciculatum, and the other the endemic Gentner's fritillaria, a bright reddish-purple lily found only in southwestern Oregon. The Wellington Mine Road should be closed to motorized use and designated as a hiking trail in the upcoming revisions to Western Oregon's Resource Management Plan. 

An OHV related landslide triggered by drainage, run-off, and over-saturation issues at the end of the Wellington Mine Road.

Please consider contacting the following BLM officials and voicing your concerns about OHV use in the Applegate Valley and the Wellington Butte Roadless Area, as well as the proposed creation of OHV Recreation Management Areas in the foothills of the Applegate Valley. In the revised West Oregon Resource Management Plan, eight separate Recreational Management Areas with allowances for OHV use are being considered in the Applegate Valley. This would codify and officially designate these areas for OHV use. It would also "grandfather" existing OHV routes for a period of up to five years while management plans and environmental analysis are prepared. The agency is taking comment on recreation and forest management in Western Oregon until July 23, 2015. Please speak out on behalf of southern Oregon's wild places.

Email comments for the RMP: 
blm_or_rmpwo_comments@blm.gov

Local BLM officials:
Dayne Barron, District Manager
d1barron@blm.gov
 John Gerritsma, Field Manager
jgerrits@blm.gov
Jerome Perez, State Director
jperez@blm.gov




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