by Randy Parks
Harney County has a valuable asset in the Radar Hill OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) area, but unfortunately, the area is being used as a trash dump, an avenue to trespass on neighboring private land, a place to squeeze off a few rounds of ammunition, and a spot to commit vandalism.
The Radar Hill Fire, which occurred on the Fourth of July, was started by individuals in the OHV area playing with modified fireworks, and it burned 900 acres of private land and more than 130 acres of public land.
With the problems seeming to escalate every year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who manages the land, is now taking steps to develop a management plan to mitigate the problems.
BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Eric Haakenson said a 1992 Resource Management Plan called for analyzing the 220-acre OHV area, and since that time, there has been a significant increase in the amount of people using it. As the number of visitors to the area has risen, so has the frequency of abuse, and the BLM has begun a scoping process to get public input on solving the problems.
Tara McLain, BLM realty specialist, said portions of the OHV area, including what is known as “Suicide Hill,” are on private land, and some of the trails pass through private land. In the past, visitors to the OHV area respected private property, but recently, there have been signs stolen, water holes used as mud bogs, ground disturbance, and trash dumped, including household garbage, furniture and appliances.
“The private landowners are tired of their land being abused,” McLain said.
One suggestion was to fence off the private land, but that would create liability issues, and the land is in the middle of a grazing allotment, meaning a fence would reduce the amount of pasture available. Another solution being analyzed is having the BLM acquire the land by sale or trade.
“People are dumping trash, trespassing, and the latest, starting a wildfire. Some people just don’t care,” Three Rivers Resource Area Field Manager Rick Roy said. “People are even dumping motor oil up there after they change the oil in their vehicle. We want to make the area an asset to the community because, right now, it’s a liability.”
As the use of the area increased, BLM responded by improving trails, installing a vault toilet, and making other improvements.
“Everything we put up there though gets damaged,” Tara Thissell, public affairs officer, said, pointing out that the toilet had been shot up.
“It was shot by a shotgun and a rifle,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said. “So you know it was deliberate damage.”
The BLM and the sheriff’s office are working together to reduce the amount of abuse and trespassing, but they also need the public’s help.
“One alternative is to just shut the whole area down. If you can’t administer a site, and do it right, what do you do?” asked Roy. “It’s just a few abusing the area, yet everyone is affected. Locals who use the area can help police it. It’s a unique area, not a dump, and it’s a community issue, not just a BLM problem.”
Sheriff Ward said in his discussions with BLM officials, other solutions suggested have ranged from installing cameras to random surveillance.
“The public has a right, a Constitutional right, to use public land, but it needs to be respected. It can be taken away,” Ward said. “And private land is just that, private. Just because it’s not fenced doesn’t mean you have the right to trespass. Just like if a door to a home isn’t locked, you don’t have the right to enter.”
Ward stated his office and the BLM want to foster a good relationship between OHV enthusiasts and private land owners, and that means weeding out those who abuse the area.
He said offenders can be cited for criminal trespass, offensive littering, criminal mischief, destruction of private property, and other violations.
“We want to send a strong message to those abusing the area,” Ward said.
He added that driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII) laws apply on public lands, and parents may be cited for the actions of their children.
Along with the sheriff’s office, the BLM has also had conversations with the county court, the chamber of commerce, OHV groups, snowmobile clubs, mountain bike groups, equestrian groups, and high school students to see what they have to offer in the way of solutions and suggestions for the area.
“We’ve talked about creating a mud bog to keep the offenders out of the private springs,” Roy said. “There could be a ‘Tough Mudder’ type of event, mountain bike races, all kinds of events.”
The BLM tentatively plans to hold public comment meetings this winter and next spring to hear how the community thinks the area should be managed, and Haakenson said they hope to have a management plan ready in about 18 months.