As usual on a sunny summer morning, the parking lot at Lewisburg Saddle on Friday was filled to overflowing, with cars strung out along the shoulder on both sides of Sulphur Springs Road just north of Corvallis.

The saddle is one of the more popular entry points to the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest, an 11,000-acre complex of wooded ridges and valleys owned by the Oregon State University College of Forestry and managed for education and research — and, increasingly, for recreation, with an estimated 145,000 or more visits per year.

Cindy Lederer and Jon Sears of Corvallis come here about three times a week, and on Friday they hiked the Vineyard Mountain Trail, a 1.8-mile route that starts from the saddle and winds through shady groves of 100-foot Douglas firs, fields of bracken ferns and stands of gnarly oak and big-toothed maple to emerge at the summit of 1,453-foot Vineyard Mountain, with sweeping views across the Willamette Valley to the east.

“I just love it,” Lederer raved. “This is one of my favorites.”

The path, one of the newest on the McDonald-Dunn Forest, is part of an ambitious program of recreational improvements that’s been underway for about two years now — but before it can go any further, OSU will need approval from Benton County. In the process of applying for grants to fund the new amenities, College of Forestry officials discovered they would need a conditional use permit to comply with county zoning rules. A hearing on the permit application is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday before the Benton County Planning Commission (see box for details).

All nine of the college’s research forests across the state are dedicated first to education and research, from training the next generation of silviculturists to studying the effects of climate change. Logging operations are routine on these lands, with revenue from timber harvests going to fund College of Forestry operations.

At the same time, the college has long recognized that Mac-Dunn occupies a unique place in the Corvallis community and has worked for many years to accommodate a wide range of recreational users, from hikers and horseback riders to mountain bikers, trail runners, hunters, dog walkers and others.

“It’s something that really matters to the College of Forestry,” said Ryan Brown, recreation program manager for OSU Research Forests. “While recreation may not have been the original intent, we totally embrace it now.”

Starting in 2013, the college began reaching out to stakeholders and user groups to gauge interest in potential trail improvements. Faculty and staff members also got involved, and a plan emerged to guide recreational development on the forest, including a combination of new trail construction and upgrading or rerouting of unauthorized user-created trails to meet the college’s standards for safety and sustainability.

In 2015 and 2016, funded with a $25,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, the college completed several trail-building projects in the Lewisburg Saddle area, including the Vineyard Mountain Trail, the quarter-mile Sidesaddle Trail connector to the equestrian parking lot, and the first phase of Dave’s Trail, a planned link between the Vineyard Mountain and Peavy Arboretum trail systems.

The college has also tapped into the energy and enthusiasm of several user groups to provide volunteer labor for some of these projects, most notably Oregon Equestrian Trails, Corvallis Trail Runners, the Marys Peak chapter of the Sierra Club and Team Dirt, the local chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association.

Team Dirt has taken a lead role in the construction of the No Secret Trail, a 1.4-mile route on McCullough Peak that will be the first trail in the Mac-Dunn network designated primarily for mountain bike use.

“They’ve gotten all the volunteer effort together for that,” Brown said. “It’s really their project.”

Volunteers are also doing the heavy lifting to upgrade or reroute multiple sections of the 1.1-mile Beautiful Trail, one of several unauthorized routes on the forest, and bring it into the official trail system.

OSU has a $76,000 grant from Oregon Parks and Rec for the next phase of the plan, which outlines a number of improvements to take place between 2017 and 2109. Phase 2 will include the completion of Dave’s Trail and work on a number of others, including trails connecting Lewisburg Saddle and Dimple Hill, and accessibility upgrades to trails at Peavy Arboretum and Cronemiller Lake.

The plan also calls for significant improvements to the parking area at Lewisburg Saddle, including 15 additional parking spaces, expansion of the pullout for horse trailers and construction of a vault toilet. Also included is design work for both short- and long-term improvements to the parking area and restroom facilities at the Oak Creek Trailhead, another heavily used entry point into the research forest.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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