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Oregon Dunes Off-Road Enthusiasts Lose Trails, Gain Riding Area

Giant dunes reach up to 500 feet tall and rolling hills of open sand seem to stretch to the horizon in a 50-mile long sandbox known as the Oregon Dunes National Recreational area.

It's a popular destination for adrenaline junkies whose off-road vehicles buzz up and down the dunes of Oregon's south coast.

But the dunes are in trouble. Invasive vegetation is quickly closing in, and as open areas shrink, fights over how people use the sand have been intensifying.

New rules from the Forest Service aim to to remedy these problems by changing where dune-riders can go. The changes attempt to find some balance between protecting vegetated areas by closing down unauthorized trails and protecting open sand by allowing OHV (off-highway vehicle) riders to help slow the spread of non-native plants.

On a quiet morning at the Oregon Dunes, Doug Heiken with the environmental group Oregon Wild hikes up a path, sinking to his ankles in the deep sand above 10 Mile Creek. Usually, you’d hear the buzz of off-road vehicles here, but it’s still early and they’re not yet stirring. The boundary between the South Riding Area for OHVs and the non-motorized section is just south of the creek, but it’s not obvious where.

“Where this line is confuses me a little bit. Sometimes it seems like this line might be out in the open sand in some places,” says Heiken. “That line is just not going to be respected.”

This is confirmed further up the path, where tire tracks and footprints mix. Dirt bikes and ATVs technically aren’t allowed along 10 Mile Creek, which is proposed for Wild and Scenic River status. Oregon Wild is monitoring the trails here and says riders are getting around barriers and cutting illegal OHV path through the vegetated areas.

“Every off-road vehicle rider has a responsibility to know the rules… and most of them probably do a pretty good job of that. But there are a few bad apples that, when they see a new gate thrown up, they will actually find a way around that gate or tear that gate down,” he says.

It’s the responsibility of the Forest Service to enforce these closures, but Angie Morris, the Recreation Planner for the Oregon Dunes, says efforts have fallen short.

“We have these user-created routes that have not been enforced as closed. They feel open. Are they open legally? No. Do they feel open? Yeah,” says Morris.

This is all about to change though. A new plan managing OHV access to vegetated areas will keep certain paths connecting open sand, but enforce closure of other user-created trails. The rationale is to prevent user conflict and protect native vegetation.

At Goose Pasture Staging Area near Florence, Jody Phillips, an OHV advocate with Save the Riders Dunes, cranks up a stocky dune-buggy-like vehicle. It's about the size of a Smart car.

“All right, let’s rock and roll!” he yells from the driver’s seat as he heads out along one of the designated paths riders call a woop road.

Woops are large rolling bumps that form when OHVs use a trial. The constant lurching is hard on the body, and aren’t fun to ride for more that a few yards – unless you’re on a dirt bike or possibly an ATV.

“If you zeroed down to one to two trails, that's what you get. You can't ride in this stuff and go play, ‘cause it's too moguled out,” says Phillips.

But this is what will happen under the new Forest Service plan. Primary trails will be designated through vegetated (or “10C”) areas. The trails - mostly already existing, but not officially sanctioned – were primarily selected to connect areas of open sand. Other user-created OHV trails will be enforced as closed.

Phillips rides past one of these thick, forested areas, where shore pines have been planted in perfect lines. The grounds looks soft and mossy and Scotch broom is scattered in the understory. A spider web of soon-to-be-closed smaller trails winds through these tree plantations. Phillips says the paths are some of the safest places to ride – even for children.

“You get out in the open dunes, get some bigger vehicles that are riding at high speed,” he says. “I got four grandbabies coming up now. I don't get them in the big dunes.”

This entire area was mostly open sand until the mid 1900s, when local, state and federal officials tried to stabilize the ground by planting European beachgrass. With massive root systems and plenty of room to grow, the grass was astonishingly successful at the Oregon Dunes. Once established it grabbed onto the sand, not allowing it to move freely on the wind.

All along the 50-mile stretch of the dunes, a ridge known as a foredune began to form along the beach.

“Where you used to get sand movement in that would come ashore, that foredune has blocked sand movement,” says the Forest Service’s Morris.

With the foredune secured by the beachgrass, the landscape behind the dune has changed dramatically.

“Basically the wind has come over the foredune and scours. This is wet, very very wet, where as before it wasn't,” says Morris.

The consistent moisture creates an environment conducive to plant growth, and consequently vegetation is moving inward from the ocean at an alarming rate and eating up the open sand. Some of these newly-vegetated areas are too wet for OHVs to ride. Others more inland host mainly of non-native plants. They are ideal for off-road vehicles.

Rider Barbara Rowland says allowing off-road vehicles in this non-native vegetation could help slow the steady creep. And this is the crux of her argument for opening areas of vegetation for riding, rather than closing off the trails.

“Close some of the areas that definitely need to be closed. But leave those trails open that was in open sand at one time,” she says.

Under the new trails plan, this will happen in places. Some non-native areas will be designated to open riding – meaning OHVers can ride anywhere within the vegetation, including cutting new trails through the vegetation.

That frustrates environmentalists like Doug Heiken.

“They're moving the line and expanding the area for motorized vehicles and shrinking the area for wildlife and other types of recreation,” he says.

With the changes, OHVs are technically gaining more legal territory in the Oregon Dunes. But riders who have been using unauthorized trails in high-user conflict areas or in more sensitive vegetation for decades without any consequence feel their turf is being taken away.

Phillips the OHV advocate says the plan to open up historically open-sand areas to motorized vehicles represents a shift in thinking by the Forest Service. But he still wants a local advisory council reinstated to make sure they preserve most defining feature of the dunes.

“It’s open sand,” he says. “I bet you more than 50 percent is gone. I’d bet you closer to 60 to 70 percent of the open sand is gone.”

Environmental groups and OHV riders share this concern, focusing their attention on non-native vegetation.

“That’s the true killer of the dunes,” says Phillips.

With the OHV trail designations finally being put to rest, the Forest Service says dunes restoration is next on the agenda.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

<p>A witch's eye formation in open sand in the North Riding Area of the Oregon Dunes.</p>

A witch's eye formation in open sand in the North Riding Area of the Oregon Dunes.

<p>Forest Service sign designed to keep OHVs out of vegetated areas.</p>

Forest Service sign designed to keep OHVs out of vegetated areas.

<p>OHV tracks on a hiking trail on the bluff above the Oregon Dunes' 10 Mile Creek.</p>

OHV tracks on a hiking trail on the bluff above the Oregon Dunes' 10 Mile Creek.

<p>Water fills a deflation plane at the Oregon Dunes.</p>

Water fills a deflation plane at the Oregon Dunes.

<p>Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild shows one way the Forest Service is trying to keep OHVs out of vegetated areas.</p>

Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild shows one way the Forest Service is trying to keep OHVs out of vegetated areas.

<p>OHV advocate Jody Phillips secures his dog Demi before riding out onto the sand.</p>

OHV advocate Jody Phillips secures his dog Demi before riding out onto the sand.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.