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Fight Over Forest Usage Nears End of Road : Environment: Off-road enthusiasts and conservationists disagree on use of Angeles National Forest. Federal officials will rule soon.


U.S. Forest Service officials are scheduled to rule this month in a 3-year-old dispute over control of off-road vehicles in Angeles National Forest.

The controversy arose in 1987 when three off-road organizations and Los Angeles County parks officials appealed a forest land-use plan that they said shortchanged off-road enthusiasts by failing to provide an adequate system of parks and trails.

A slew of intervenors joined the battle, including the Sierra Club and several homeowner groups from communities close to the forest who were concerned that the Forest Service would cave in to the demands of off-road vehicle--ORV--users.

The off-roaders use four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorcycles, dune buggies, all-terrain vehicles and other recreational transportation on fire trails and elsewhere.

The complex case has ground slowly through the bureaucracy, with the parties papering the Forest Service with hundreds of pages of arguments. Facing a backlog of hundreds of appeals of plans for other national forests, officials at Forest Service headquarters in Washington have yet to decide the case, but say they plan to rule by the end of this month.

The long-awaited decision could affect the total amount of trail mileage and acreage available to ORVs, as well as the degree of public participation in planning new trails. It will not eliminate a more basic conflict over ORV recreation, which many conservationists, fishermen and other users feel has no place in a national forest because of the noise, dust and erosion that the vehicles create.

For their part, off-roaders want the same access as bird-watchers, anglers and equestrians. Off-roading "is a legitimate form of recreation and it can be managed," said Rick Fisher of Chatsworth, who represents the California Off-Road Vehicle Assn. in one of the appeals.

The second most heavily used of the 155 national forests, Angeles is a haven for off-roaders, who logged an estimated 281,000 visitor days in 1987--the equivalent of 23,000 ORV users each riding once a month.

Most of the use occurs in three open areas: Rowher Flat, northeast of the city of Santa Clarita; Little Rock Dam in the southern foothills of the Antelope Valley, and Rincon Flats in San Gabriel Canyon. These are sometimes called "play" areas or "playpens" by users--and "sacrifice" areas by environmentalists--because riders can go wherever they want without sticking to trails.

The forest also has about 40 miles of off-road trails and numerous unpaved roads that off-roaders use. Moreover, about 215,000 acres--or one-third of the forest--traditionally have been open to ORVs. Although largely inaccessible due to harsh terrain, this vast area includes about 200 miles of firebreaks and other primitive trails, where damage resulted "from uncontrolled ORV use on hill climbs, in sensitive plant habitats, riparian areas and archeological sites," according to a Forest Service document.

This was supposed to change in 1987, when Angeles forest officials issued a 10-year land and resource management plan for the forest. Such plans, required by federal law for each of the national forests, set policies for protecting natural resources and serving a wide spectrum of visitors, from hikers and campers to target shooters and off-roaders.

In the draft version of the plan, Angeles officials proposed closing the 215,000 acres to ORVs except on designated trails. In return, the draft envisioned a fourth ORV "play" area and creation of a 364-mile network of ORV trails and roads, to be increased eventually to 581 miles.

But the draft drew howls of protest from other forest visitors, said Robert T. Haggard, a resource planner for Angeles forest. "The overwhelming response we got" was that "there were certain things that people did not think were appropriate to Angeles National Forest, and they included off-road vehicles," Haggard said.

The final version of the plan issued late in 1987 preserved the off-roaders' losses and erased some of their gains. The fourth "play" area was dropped, and the existing Rowher Flat off-road area was reduced at least temporarily from 600 acres to 39 acres to protect potentially significant Indian cultural sites. The 364-mile trail system remained in the plan without the eventual expansion to 581 miles. Moreover, the plan prohibited ORVs on hiking and equestrian trails, which some off-roaders thought they should be allowed to share.

The plan singled out off-roaders "for particular deprivation and harm," Jerry Counts of Canoga Park, district land-use coordinator for the American Motorcyclist Assn., wrote in one of the appeals.

The motorcyclist association and its allies sought to reinstate some of the gains in the draft plan. They also asked Forest Service officials to delete the map of ORV trails that was published with the final plan.

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