Forests change limits for ATVs
By 2008 all of the national forests in California are supposed to finish vehicle-use maps
By Michael Doyle, MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON — Californias off-road enthusiasts will face new limits under first-of-their-kind Forest Service rules made final Wednesday.
Some favorite Sierra Nevada play areas might go out of bounds. Overall, though, Forest Service officials contend the new restrictions will better balance recreation and resource conservation.
Our goal is to improve opportunities for motorized recreation, and still ensure the best possible care of our land, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said Wednesday.
With political engines revved up on all sides, the Forest Service did not impose a single national standard. Instead, each national forest — including the 19 in California that together span 20 million acres — must now identify which areas are open for vehicle use.
Currently, some forests restrict vehicles to certain areas while others let them roam generally free. By requiring all 155 national forests and 20 national grassland areas to spell out where off-road vehicles can and cannot go, the new rule gives land managers the order theyve long wanted.
If recreation use is not well managed, we end up with damage to the land, Bosworth said.
The new forest rules will identify what kind of vehicles will be permitted on what roads and trails, and during what time of year.
More generally, the new rules reverse how the Forest Service regulates vehicles. Instead of allowing them everywhere they are not explicitly prohibited, they will now be prohibited everywhere they are not explicitly permitted. Some forests are already moving in this direction.
The El Dorado National Forest, for one, tallies off-highway vehicle use on about 2,100 miles of roads and trails. By next October, acting under court order, the forest will have completed its environmental study formally designating what can remain open to vehicles. The Stanislaus National Forest likewise just completed public hearings in September on its vehicle use plans, while the Sequoia National Forest is close to issuing orders banning cross-country vehicle use.
By September 2008, aided by $2 million a year in state funds, all of the national forests in California are supposed to finish their own vehicle-use maps.
Theyre finally taking their responsibilities to manage off-road vehicles seriously, said Karen Schambach, president of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, but they should
have been a lot bolder."
Schambach's conservation group, based in the tiny El Dorado County town of Georgetown, successfully sued the Forest Service to compel completion of the new vehicle use plans on the Eldorado National Forest. She said the Forest Service fell short by not setting a two-year deadline for all vehicle-use maps nationwide, and she criticized the agency for not providing additional funds to speed the work.
Conservation groups also want to ensure the final maps minimize environmental damage. Forest managers will collaborate with local residents and others in completing the maps.
"The biggest concern we have is that the rules are fairly implemented, and that routes aren't eliminated that are legitimate routes," said Dick Taylor, owner of a Bakersfield tire store and president of the Kern Off-Highway Vehicle Association.
A fan of the Sequoia National Forest among other public areas, Taylor said he considered the new Forest Service rules "a prudent move" even as he stressed that "proper public input" will be needed in crafting each forest's individual plan.
The input has already been flowing. Since first proposing the new rules in July 2004, the Forest Service logged 81,563 public comments. Most "strongly supported" the idea of designating approved travel areas, the agency noted.
The Forest Service wrote the rules for what the agency calls off-highway vehicles. These include four-wheel drive vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles; snowmobiles, though, are covered by different rules.
They are increasingly popular. All-terrain vehicle sales alone increased to 799,400 in 2003, up from 277,800 in 1995, according to figures compiled by the Forest Service.
Nationwide, more than 200,000 miles of roads and
36,000 miles of trails on Forest Service land are currently open to off-highway vehicle travel. An estimated 4 million Californians play around in off-highway vehicles annually, according to a Forest Service study.
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