Of the Baker City Herald

County commissioners will meet with a consultant Thursday to discuss a study on the proposed purchase of the King Ranch property near Whitney for use as an off-highway vehicle recreation area.

The meeting is set for 3:30 p.m. at the Baker County Courthouse, 1995 Third St. The public is invited, but no testimony will be taken until public hearings on the proposal can be scheduled.

Those hearings will be part of the feasibility study, said Fred Warner Jr., county commission chair. Commissioners have approved funding the study but have not yet selected who will do the work.

Public hearing dates and places have not yet been announced.

The only firm to bid on studying the site for the proposed trail system, Salem-based TEM Recreation Consultants, LLC, said it will perform the study for $8,800. The county will pay for half the study, while the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department will fund the other half.

TEM performed a feasibility study for the Virtue Flat OHV area east of Baker City as well as one in Coos County adjacent to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

andquot;Each project presented unique opportunities and challenges,andquot; consultants Terry Eccles and Marlene Lindley wrote to county commissioners. andquot;We successfully provided both agencies with documents that would provide significant opportunities to the managing agencies and their users.andquot;

Kent and Anita Nelson, who own the 4,000 acre King Ranch site, have had the King Ranch property on the market for about three years. They're asking $1.8 million.

Millions for parks in the bank

Through sticker fees paid by Oregon's 68,056 registered ATV owners and through OHV and ATV fuel taxes, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has about $6 million for acquiring and maintaining OHV trails, said Ian Caldwell, field representative for the department's Eastern and Central Oregon regions.

If the local project is funded, the state will pay 80 percent of the acquisition cost, Caldwell said, and other grant sources might be lined up to pay the remainder.

andquot;I have visited the site twice,andquot; he said. andquot;It has really good potential. The terrain is well-suited for a trail system, and the proximity to the Forest Service (ground) works really well.andquot;

Baker County would be in line with two other Oregon communities in Southern Oregon that are pursuing department funding for ATV park use.

Caldwell said there's precedent for purchasing ATV parks from private sources. Part of Morrow County's 100-mile trail system, for example, opened in 2003 between Spray and Heppner, was built on land owned by a logging company.

Like the proposed Baker County park, the Morrow County trail system bumps up against Forest Service lands. That kind of proximity, Caldwell said, can minimize land-use conflicts because the ATV parks often draw people off Forest Service ground.

In addition, Caldwell said, a proposed nationwide strategy on forest land to limit cross-country travel only on designated trails andquot;has a potential impact on OHV use in Oregon.andquot;

andquot;You could pull some use of the Forest Service land and have it in one area to minimize conflicts,andquot; he said.

Any feasibility study, Caldwell said, should address concerns from both private neighbors and the public agencies that manage adjacent land.

andquot;We want to look at neighbors, wildlife issues, soil conditions, cultural resources, any tribal issues, anything that is a potential roadblock or problem,andquot; he said. andquot;Is there something we should do? Are there things we can do to mitigate problems?andquot;

Mitigation often involves improving stream quality, he said. OHV projects usually include building culverts over streams to protect water quality and fish.

Morrow County's project also included both fencing and signs, Caldwell said. The signs explain boundaries between private and public land, and the fences delineate private ground.

andquot;Morrow County has a good trail system that provides people the opportunities they want,andquot; he said. andquot;They can have plenty of fun on existing trails. Proper management has eliminated a lot of the problems.andquot;

Answers to five key questions

Warner said he wants Thursday's meeting with TEM Consultants and the study that the firm presumably will produce to answer at least five questions:

o How much would a new park increase ridership?

o What is the best way to elicit comments from the public?

o What is the cost of both building and maintaining the trails?

o What will be the impact on adjacent landowners and residents?

o What are the economic, environmental and management issues surrounding the park?

The idea for building the trail system, he said, came from the cities of Huntington and Unity.

andquot;If we put this in, riders can access both communities, and provide economic benefit to both,andquot; he said. andquot;It's varied terrain. It goes from flat to steep, from forested to open meadow. And the property is available.andquot;

Warner said that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has encouraged the project.

andquot;They believe it can happen if Baker County wants it and the feasibility study determines it'll be a good deal,andquot; he said. andquot;People are buying OHVs in record numbers. We don't want them (trespassing) on private property. I'm convinced they're going to come, whether we build the park or not.andquot;

There is opposition to the concept, Warner acknowledged. A handful of Hereford landowners have contacted him with their concerns, he said.

andquot;That's why we need to get to work on this study, so we can have the facts before the snow flies,andquot; he said. andquot;When the commission voted to go for the feasibility study, it was to get the facts out and dispel rumors.

andquot;We want to be able to tell people exactly what this park is all about.andquot;