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Forest Service Lays Out the Rule of the Off-Road

Motorized vehicles will be restricted to designated routes in an effort to curb the go-anywhere urge. Funding is an issue.

November 03, 2005|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Cross-country, off-road vehicle travel will be curbed in national forests under new regulations aimed at controlling the explosion in off-highway use that has been the source of increasing friction on America's public lands.

Under the rule, all of the country's 155 national forests will be required to designate roads, trails and areas for off-road use and then restrict off-highway vehicles to those routes. "We believe this rule will provide a good, consistent approach to motorized vehicle use on national forests," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who has called uncontrolled off-road use one of the four greatest threats to national forest lands.

The rule has the support of the country's major off-road lobbying group, the BlueRibbon Coalition. It also won the qualified praise of environmental groups, but they faulted the effort for not including new enforcement funding or staffing.

"Taking this action to put them only on designated routes is a great move and we applaud that," said Karen Schambach, president of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation in California. "We just wish that they were putting their money where their mouth is."

Off-road recreation has grown tremendously in recent decades. In 2002, there were 11.5 million off-road users in the national forest system. At the same time, the vehicles have become more powerful and capable of climbing over rougher, remote terrain.

"There are more machines that can go in more places," said Intermountain Regional Forester Jack Troyer. "With the increased use we have, we can't manage the impacts on the land anymore."

About one-third of the country's 192 million acres of national forest land are open to cross-country, off-road use. And in other, more restricted areas, users have veered off designated routes and created their own trails, damaging soil and tearing up wildlife habitat.

Officials said some cross-country areas would remain accessible under the new rule, but much of the land now open would be off-limits, once the new routes were designated.

By creating a well-mapped, posted system of official routes and trails that will be drawn up in consultation with off-roaders, the Forest Service hopes to curb the go-anywhere urge.

Clark Collins, BlueRibbon's founder and executive director, said he thought the problem of off-road damage had been overblown. "Unacceptable impact is largely the result of improper guidance for users, and we see this new rule as an opportunity to get better information for the users so we don't have that problem."

He added that he was glad the Forest Service would still be able to designate open areas for off-road use and also hoped that routes created by users would be incorporated into the new system.

There is no deadline for forests to designate the off-road routes, although Bosworth said he expected the mapping to be completed in four years. That lack of a deadline, coupled with the absence of new funding for enforcement, prompted criticism that the rule lacked the teeth to be effective.

"I applaud the Forest Service for taking on the off-road vehicle issue," said Jim Furnish, a retired deputy chief. "However, the Forest Service has simply failed to create a solution capable of beating the problem."

In California, the Forest Service has entered into an agreement with the state to create an off-road system in all of its 19 national forests by 2008 with the help of $2-million annual funding from the California Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission. And three Southern California forests, the Angeles, San Bernardino and Los Padres, have already designated off-road routes.

But in what might be a glimpse of the future, the routing has not eliminated illegal use. "We are still getting some people driving where they're not supposed to," said Rich Farrington, the Forest Service's route designation program leader in California. "We need improved communication and maybe more law enforcement."

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