In an effort to limit backcountry damage, U.S. Forest Service officials on Wednesday announced plans to specify which roads and trails are open to off-highway vehicles in the state's 18 national forests.
The mapping by California foresters is part of a nationwide effort that officials said would help local foresters better manage the growth in off-road vehicle use and establish a more consistent national policy.
However, the route designation initiative, which the agency considers a priority, comes with no timetable for completion and no funding at a time when Western foresters are preoccupied with managing another priority: wild land fires.
While Wednesday's announcement was being made by national officials, California's foresters were meeting in Sacramento to discuss budget issues.
National forests in California have received $5.8 million from an Off Highway Vehicle Commission fund to help pay for the route designation program. But the money will not cover all of the costs of mapping the trails and routes in the Forest Service's 20 million acres in California, officials said.
In making the plan a national priority, the Forest Service acknowledged that funds for wildlife and other conservation programs may be diverted to the road designation effort.
"To be realistic about it, some other program may suffer in order to fund this program," said Matt Mathes, a regional spokesman for the agency.
Fire prevention remains the top priority in California, he added.
Road and trail identification is already underway in the state, and that aspect of the program is expected to be completed by late 2005. The final stage of the process, issuing maps of the new trail system, is to be completed by September 2008.
The impetus for road designation is to minimize the damage done by off-highway vehicles in forests, a use that increased 600% from 1972 to 2000, according to the Forest Service.
By clearly designating certain roads open to vehicular travel, the new rules would make it easier for law enforcement officers to cite those who stray off marked roads, officials said.
Off-road recreation groups generally backed the proposed rule.
"We support the system of designated roads and trails. But the devil is in the details," said Bill Dart, executive director of the Idaho-based Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized recreation group. "We'd like to start with the premise that everything on the ground now stays open, unless there's a reasonable reason not to designate the route."
Forest service officials said they would rely partly on volunteers from local communities to map roads and trails. Dart said off-road enthusiasts expect to assist in the effort.
National forests in California have 43,000 miles of established roads and about 16,000 miles of trails, 5,000 of which are already open to motorized use. Officials have identified about 7,000 miles of illegal user-created trails, with only about half the state's non-wilderness Forest Service land surveyed.
Forest Service officials said it is likely that some of the illegal trails will be included in the new category of open roads.
Conservationists called the plan a mixed blessing, praising the Forest Service for beginning the long-delayed process of managing off-highway vehicles but critical that the agency failed to provide many details or set guidelines for local forests to follow.
"The trouble with that approach is that the forests are so stretched already they are going to be hard put to do this," said Karen Schambach, California coordinator for the national conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It still boils down to an unfunded mandate."