(CN) - Environmentalists want the U.S. Forest Service enjoined from building a 144-mile network of off-highway vehicle trails in Oregon's Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, saying the "persistent, high-pitched whine" of motorbikes and four-wheelers breaks the natural spell of the forest and disturbs elk and other wildlife.
The Hells Canyon Preservation Council, of La Grande, Ore., says the Forest Service failed to complete the required environmental studies before ruling that the new trails would have no significant impact on the 38,283-acre Sled Springs Area of the forest, in the far northeastern corner of Oregon.
The group asked the Pendleton, Ore., Federal Court to stop the plan from going forward and to force the agency to complete a full environmental impact study.
There is "ample evidence in the agency's own record indicating that the construction and designation of a large OHV 'play area' may have a significant impact upon natural resources, particularly elk and elk habitat within the Sled Springs area," the complaint states.
"The Forest Service's failure to prepare an EIS and instead issue a Finding of No Significant Impact is even more unreasonable given the cumulative impact the Sled Springs OHV project will have when added to a landscape already heavily affected from past and present commercial logging, prescribed burning, widespread livestock grazing, and unauthorized OHV use."
The area has long been prime elk hunting ground, and the group says the disruptive presence of off-highway vehicles and other "human disturbance" will reduce an already stressed elk population.
"Calf elk recruitment for the Sled Springs has dramatically declined in recent years," the group says. "Scientific studies have found disturbance from humans to be a main factor in reduced calf elk survival and subsequent decreases in population growth. Disturbed calf elk use energy to escape from human disturbance and cow elk that are displaced from their calves are unable to protect their offspring. Human disturbance can result in increased nutritional stress, desertion of offspring, and increased calf movement, all of which result in increased vulnerability to predation."
The group says the Forest Service has been working on a plan for a large OHV area in the forest since 2003, when the Oregon State ATV Allocation Committee gave the agency a grant to study such a possibility.
Beginning in 2006, the Forest Service issued a series of decisions finding that the OHV trails would have no impact on the forest at large.
The environmentalists want the plan enjoined pending a full study and a "hard look" at the potential impact of the trails on all facets of the forest, as is required by federal environmental laws.
The group is represented by Jennifer Schwartz of La Grande.
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