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Off-Roading Loses Its Way

August 07, 2004

Motorized off-road vehicles, from inexpensive dirt bikes to $100,000 Hummers, provide a sort of unfettered outdoor thrill ride, often in competitive mode. Groups representing off-roaders say their numbers now top 2 million. Families head out to the deserts or mountains for an activity that keeps even the teenagers in the family. For others it's a guy thing, with big toys and great scenery.

The knobby-tired vehicles also rip into wild areas, tearing up native plants and sometimes stripping soil to bedrock. Their engines shred the peace of hikers and campers and frighten animals into remote corners. The question is whether it's still possible to balance motorized fun and environmental preservation.

Many off-roaders spurn the park roads -- after all, the name of the pursuit is off-road -- to carve an estimated 60,000 miles of renegade trails in national forests. Last month, rangers in Northern California closed 300 acres of the Eldorado National Forest because human feces deposited by off-roaders were a public health hazard.

Off-roaders' visits to national forests have increased sevenfold in less than 30 years, and public land managers haven't kept up. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service finally gave official recognition to the damage caused by off-roading and proposed a rule to keep the vehicles on designated trails.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 14, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 18 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Off-roading -- An Aug. 7 editorial on off-roading incorrectly referred to the desert tortoise as an endangered species. The species is listed in the United States as threatened, and in Mexico as endangered.

It was a start, but a weak one. Simple as the task sounds, the Forest Service first must inventory and map existing roads -- both official ones and those blazed by off-roaders -- then decide which to leave open. Many off-roaders applaud this as well; those who want to do the right thing have little way of knowing which trails are sanctioned or environmentally wise. But the Forest Service has no money for the task and has set itself no deadline. By contrast, California last year funded a five-year effort, joined by conservationists and responsible off-roaders, to help the Forest Service map routes in the state's national forests. But preserving national forest land shouldn't be the states' burden.

The attitude of many off-roaders is that, as their numbers grow, they deserve more trails and access within the finite acreage of state and federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management wrongly complied last month, giving more than 1.3 million acres and 90% of the trails in the northern and eastern Mojave Desert, home to the endangered California desert tortoise. Off-roaders say they'll police themselves. Such self-regulation was a failure in the the Eldorado forest.

Given the toll of off-roading on public resources, this pastime is ripe for serious regulation, including lids on unmuffled noise, along with fees that reflect what off-roading costs the public. Right now, an off-roader pays the same $5 per day as a hiker to use a national forest in Southern California. A rule limiting riders to designated routes will mean nothing if the financially emaciated Forest Service lacks the staff to enforce it.

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