A new era has begun here at one of Oregon's most popular mountain ATV riding areas due in part to a desire to preserve remnants of an era long past.
SANTIAM PASS — A new era has begun here at one of Oregon's most popular mountain ATV riding areas due in part to a desire to preserve remnants of an era long past.
For more than a quarter century, trail bike riders and four-wheelers have been allowed to drive just about anywhere their wheels would take them on 14,000 acres of rolling volcanic hills south of Highway 20 and north of the Mount Washington Wilderness Area, 70 miles east of Eugene.
But new, more-restrictive rules were in effect when the winter snows melted this year.
Under the Willamette National Forest's new management plan, motorized vehicles in the Santiam Pass area are restricted to designated roads and trails. No more driving cross-country, except on snow machines during the winter months.
The Santiam Pass Summer Motorized Recreation Area includes about 30 miles of dirt road open to mixed use traffic, plus 20 miles of trail open to off-highway vehicles, according to Steve Otoupalik, a Willamette National Forest trials manager involved in development of the plan.
A key motivation for the change in management approach, Otoupalik said, was the need to prevent further obliteration of the historic Santiam Wagon Road, which runs east-west through area.
It's "very important" to protect what's left of that route, said Cara Kelly, a Forest Service archaeologist. "It's eligible for the National Register. It's on the governor's list of Oregon trails."
From its opening in 1866 through 1939, when Highway 20 was constructed, Kelly said, the wagon road "was the main link to eastern Oregon from the Willamette Valley."
In several areas, all traces of the original route have already been erased by ATVs slaloming along the road's shoulders.
The new management approach is readily apparent even before a visitor reaches the temporary staging area east of Hayrick Butte on Big Lake Road.
Log barriers block access to former "play" areas and trails now off-limits. In some areas, barriers erected by Youth Conservation Corps crews define the boundaries of the travel corridor. "No motorized vehicles" signs are posted at the entrance to routes that have been closed. And some user-created trails have been broken up with heavy equipment or blocked with boulders and/or woody debris.
The new management plan also limits camping along the Santiam Wagon road to about 20 designated sites. The "dispersed camping" areas provide no facilities. In the area north of the Santiam Wagon road, visitors are free to camp anywhere within 50 feet of a road.
On the wagon road itself, a speed limit of 15 miles per hour is now in effect.
Also given additional protection by the new plan is the Sand Mountain Special Interest Area, home to a historic fire lookout.
A large deposit of fine-grained gray volcanic ash at the cinder cone's base had been used as a sandy "play area" by four-wheelers squirreling around on what was, in effect, a small, high-altitude beach.
The new rules have already made a difference, said Tim Nidever of the Sand Mountain Society, who volunteers at the lookout.
"I just spent four days up there and the number of infractions was very small," said Nidever. "It's very exciting compared to past years."
To help make sure the new rules are understood and followed, at least one Forest Service employee is on patrol in the motorized recreation area every day. Like the trail work, the patrols are funded by user fees through grants from the Oregon Park and Recreation's Department's ATV Fund.
User reactions to the changes have been mixed.
Trent Kemmer of Portland said the changes don't bother him. "In my younger days, I might have squawked a little bit, but now I'm just happy to be on a machine having a good time," he said.
"It's different. Like the kids used to play on that hill there," Santiam regular Rob Huntington of Crabtree said with a nod toward a pumice slope — now barricaded, signed and covered with woody debris —across the road from his campsite. "But I understand why they're doing it, so it's fine by me."
On the other hand, Huntington said, a group with three camp trailers pulled in one night and left early the next morning without even unloading their ATVs.
"They didn't like it," he said. "We could hear the comments — 'This isn't what we expected. This isn't the way it used to be.'"
Otoupalik said some longtime users no doubt won't accept the changes and will go elsewhere.
"We've already had a little bit of that, where folks will say, 'Well, it's not the area I want to go to anymore,'" he said. "But on the other hand, we do have new people that have showed up and said, 'This is great!'"
Off-highway vehicle riders "looking for miles and miles of trail to ride" would probably find more enjoyment in the high desert ATV area east of Bend, Otoupalik said, while the Oregon Dunes provide vast expanses of open areas on which to ride for folks who enjoy that.
"This kind of nestles in between both of those," he said. "It provides an area where families can come up and camp and ride. Our system now is probably rated 'easy.' Currently we don't have anything that's geared toward the high-end riders that are really proficient and want to really challenge themselves."
Otoupalik said the Santiam Pass Summer Motorized Recreation Area will get better as more of the plan is implemented over the next few years. For example, only about half of the approved OHV trails are now open because construction and signing work remains to be done before the rest are ready for use. In addition, a new "Learner's Loop" for youths and beginning riders should be ready by the middle of next summer. Also planned is a permanent staging area with information kiosk, parking and restrooms.