OHV Route Designation: A Primer for Preservationists

by Karen Schambach

California's Route Designation Guidebook

Route Designation Target Dates

How new Forest Service Rules affect California's route designation process

The Good and the Bad

The newly-adopted Forest Service Off-Road Vehicle Route Designation rules have gotten a lot of publicity in recent weeks, but the Route Designation process in California National Forests is well ahead of most other states. In August 2003, the Regional Forester signed a Memorandum of Intent with the State Off Highway Vehicle Commission.  The Forest Service agreed to begin the OHV Route Designation process and complete it by 2008, and the OHV Commission agreed to provide the Forest Service $2 million a year to fund the process.

How to Participate in Route Designation on Your National Forest

How can the public effectively participate in route designation, to make sure resources are protected and their Forest doesn’t become (or remain) a spaghetti bowl of redundant routes?

Contact your Forest staff

It is important to contact your Forest , find out who is in charge of OHV Route Designation and let them know you want to be involved.  (See websites below.)  The Designation process emphasizes public involvement and the off road community is already on high alert and engaged.

Progress towards completing route designation varies Forest by Forest.  The Eldorado National Forest , because of a court order, has closed all its non-system (user created) routes while it completes route designation and has already filed a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register to do an EIS.  Other forests have completed their inventories and a few have temporary Forest Orders in place or near completion.  Others have not yet completed their inventories, although all are close to completion.  Most Forests are issuing regular Route Inventory updates.

           Route Designation status updates are posted on each forest’s web site:

Eldorado:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/eldorado/projects/route/pm-schedule/index.shtml

Inyo:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/projects/ohvroute5.shtml

Klamath:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/klamath/projects/ohv/index.shtml

Lassen:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/lassen/projects/route/

Mendocino:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/mendocino/projects/ohv/

Modoc:  Nothing on its web site. *

Plumas:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/plumas/projects/ohv/index.shtml

Sequoia:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/projects/ohv_route_designation_strategy/index.html

Shasta Trinity:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/shastatrinity/news/ohv/index.shtml

Sierra: www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra/projects/ohv/index.shtml

Six Rivers:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/sixrivers/projects/ohv/

Tahoe:  www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/projects_plans/ohv_inv/index.shtml

The four southern Forests (Angeles, Cleveland , San Bernardino and Los Padres) are just completing New Land Management Plans.  Their route inventories are completed or near completion, but they have not pursued route designation during the LMP process.  These forests should re-start their OHV route designation process in 2006.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit already has a designated route system, due to the special management of the Unit to protect Lake Tahoe .

*The Modoc NF is dragging its feet on route designation and needs to be encouraged to proceed according to schedule.

Get to know your local forest resources staff

While it is difficult for us to know every route on the forest, the forest wildlife biologists, botanists and cultural staffs are usually pretty well aware of where the sensitive resources are on their forests.  You may find they welcome your interest.

Many forests can produce map layers that identify various resources, ask that they do this, so the public can clearly see where potential conflicts lie.  Pay close attention to where trails cross riparian areas. If you need help getting layers, contact the California Wilderness Coalition for help.

Request Notice of and Attend the Public Meetings!!!

            It is imperative that the Forest Service recognize that OHV Route Designation is an important issue to the non-OHV publics.  The only way they can know this is if we make it unmistakably clear through letters, emails, and attending public meetings. Such meetings are historically dominated by the OHV folks.  The Forest Service both wants and needs our presence at these meetings to help hold the line against the demands by the Blue Ribbon Coalition and its members for “no net loss of trails.”  Get your friends together and make an appearance for the sake of the forest and yourselves.  Identify yourself as a hiker, a birder, an equestrian, a mycologist or as just a traditional quiet forest recreationists.  Don’t be afraid to make your own demands for protection of resources and quiet recreation.

The Guidebook

The California (Region 5) office of the Forest Service is assisting the 19 California National Forests with route designation, providing both financial and technical assistance.  The California route designation process is laid out in a Route Designation Guidebook, available on the Forest Service website at:


            Not only does the Guidebook provide guidance to Forests for route designation; it is a valuable tool for the public to assess compliance by each National Forest with applicable laws and regulations as they go through the route designation process.  Be sure to also download the appendices!

The Guidebook gives explicit instructions to the Forest Supervisors for completing ORV route designation on their forests.   The steps towards route designation and target dates are:

Step 1…by March 2006

Map existing unclassified roads, motorized trails, and use areas; compile existing Forest OHV Management Direction; Designate team leaders, assemble needed information, identify gaps in date, involve the public.

During Step 1, tell the Forest Service what user-created routes should not be on the temporary route system.  These can include trails in roadless areas, in proposed Wilderness and those that are having a significant adverse affect on resources.  It might also include historic hiking or horse trails, or trails in sensitive cultural areas. 

The bar for excluding existing trails on the interim maps has been deliberately set high, as the Forest Service doesn’t want to get into the position of doing analysis on trails prior to the designation analysis.  They want to be able to issue the Temporary Closure Orders using a Categorical Exclusion.  Their rationale for the CE is plausible; by closing all but mapped trails to vehicle use, the net result on the environment is a positive one.  Still, if there are trails you believe are inappropriately included on the maps, let them know.

Step 2…by June 2006

Prepare Forest Order Maps; Issue temporary Forest Orders; involve the public.

(Stopping the Madness)

Many people consider the inventory of all existing routes, even the thousands of miles of user-created routes, an unnecessary step and one that, at least temporarily, “legalizes” illegal use.  The decision by the Regional Forester to inventory and allow interim use on these routes was a difficult one.  Because many of these routes were built on Forests that were, for a large part, “open” to ORV use, these user-created routes are not technically “illegal.”  They are not, however, “system” routes. 

The temporary Closure Orders identified in step 2, which will restrict use to the mapped system and non-system routes, is generally referred to as the “stop the madness” step.  Forest Service maps over time showed user-created routes were increasing at a rate of 15% per year. This route proliferation on National Forests across the country prompted the Chief to declare unmanaged recreation as one of the “four threats” to our National Forests.  The route inventories and Interim Closures will at least “freeze” the proliferation on paper and any routes created after the inventories will be clearly illegal, as will any wheeled travel off mapped routes.

The danger, of course, is that the inventoried routes are being given temporary legitimacy and this is likely to result in requiring opponents of any given inventoried route to show why it should not be permanently designated, rather than requiring trail advocates to prove a route is acceptable.  Natural resource proponents and quiet recreationists should hold their Forests to the latter standard for all proposed routes.   Legitimizing, through designation, a majority of user-created routes would make the ORV “threat” a permanent blight on our Forests.

Step 3…. by February 2007

Fill out OHV Use Evaluation Forms for all routes and areas; Develop proposed OHV systems; determine 4-wheel drive trails vs. roads; complete surveys of information and data gaps; involve the public.

The Guidebook includes criteria for analyzing routes to determine whether or not a route is appropriate for designation as an ORV route.  These criteria include the direction in Executive Orders 11644 and 11989, to minimize conflicts with other users and residents, minimize harassment of wildlife and damage to habitat, vegetation and soils. Routes must also comply with Land Management Plan Standards and Guidelines, the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment and a myriad other laws, regulations and plans. 

The Guidebook requires that every potential route be analyzed, using specific criteria, unless previously designated.  However, it sets a standard for analysis that even previously designated routes must meet.

Step 4…by December 2007

Complete analyses and prepare NEPA documents; involve the public.

This is where “scoping” comes in and is the time to make sure the Forest Service is aware of your concerns and issues through a “scoping letter.”  Make sure the purpose and need statement for the environmental document clearly states the need to protect natural and cultural resources, minimize conflicts with other users and reduce conflict with nearby residents.  The EA or EIS need only include alternatives that satisfy the purpose and need statement, so make sure your forest understands the need to control ORVs, not just provide a quality ORV recreation experience!  Forests, if they follow the Guidebook, will likely (but not necessarily) include natural resource protection in its purpose and need. The public will then need to make sure they actually consider natural resources in designation. 

The Forest Service is less likely to consider OHV conflicts with residents and non-motorized recreation.  Because the forests are not planning to designate hiking or equestrian trails during the route designation process, there is a real danger that non-motorized recreation interests will be short-changed in this process.  Forests should be informed in no uncertain terms that interests of non-motorized users need to be given full consideration and if non-motorized trails are not going to be designated, ORV trail designation cannot preclude designation of areas and trails for quiet recreation. 

The purpose and need should reflect the need to protect other recreationists, and an alternative developed that reflects those interests. This can include not designating routes in roadless areas or proposed wilderness.  It can also include creating large blocks of “silence” where the experience desired by quiet recreationists is protected.  One hiking trail surrounded by dirt bike routes is not multiple use!

            Forests should be reminded that a 1997 California State Parks survey of unmet recreation needs found that walking and hiking were the highest unmet recreation need.  ORVs were at the bottom of the list.  (California State Parks, Public Opinions and Attitudes on Outdoor Recreation in California 1997: An Element of the California Outdoor Recreation Planning Program, March 1998.)

            Pursuant to the newly-adopted Federal Regulations, the Purpose and Need Statement should also incorporate the requirement that the Forest consider its ability to maintain, administer and afford any system of routes designated for off road use (36 CFR 212.55).  .”  It is also appropriate given the Chief’s admission that unmanaged recreation is one of the “four threats” to our National Forests and the historic lack of management of OHVs on National Forests.

Issues to Raise

Other issues to raise in your scoping letter include: 

  • Seasonal closures wet and/or dry seasons) to protect soils;
  • Roads analysis recommendations for closures/restoration
  • Road maintenance costs vs. budget
  • Road/trail density:  What is the maximum allowed in the Forest Land Management Plan for specific areas to protect wildlife, watersheds?
  • Impacts to wildlife
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Watershed impacts
  • Protection of historic and prehistoric sites
  • Protection of botanical resources
  • Seasonal closure of deer winter range and fawning areas and migratory routes
  • User conflicts, especially the preclusion of areas and/or trails for other forms of recreation, which are not being considered through this process.  Insist that the Forest Service be very conservative when designating OHV routes. 
  • Suggest segregated “OHV zones” to where the use is intensely managed.  This leaves other areas of the Forest for wildlife and watershed protection, and provides a traditional, quiet environment for non-motorized recreation.
  • Point out that a survey by California State Parks found that Californians consider hiking and walking opportunities to be the highest unmet recreation needs. OHV was at the bottom of the unmet needs list.
  • Urge the Forest Service to only consider existing system routes for designation at this time.  The analysis required, if they follow the Guidebook, is quite vigorous.  It is unlikely they can complete that analysis for non-system routes in the time allowed.
  • Insist that the project include an “adaptive management” provision that penalizes illegal use or continued route proliferation by reducing or eliminating OHV use on the forest.  With little enforcement available, this may create the peer pressure needed to get the off-road community to act responsibly.

  • Best Management Practices - The Forest must comply with Best Management Practices that address OHV use:  Water Quality Monitoring of Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Use According to a Developed Plan (Practice 4-7).  This practice requires monitoring to provide a systematic process to determine when and to what extent OHV use will cause, or is causing adverse effects on water quality.  It requires each Forest ’s OHV plan “to provide a systematic process to determine when and to what extent OHV use will cause, or is causing adverse effects on water quality.”  Further, Practice 4-7 requires:


        1. Identify areas or routes where OHV use could cause degradation of water quality.

      2. Establish baseline water quality data for normal conditions as a basis from which to measure change.

      3. Identify water quality standards and the amount of change acceptable.

      4. Establish monitoring methods and frequency.

      5. Identify controls and mitigation appropriate in management of OHVs.

      6. Restrict OHV use to designated routes.


     Implementation requires evaluating monitoring results against the OHV plan objectives for water quality and the LRMP objectives for the area. Monitoring results must be documented, along with the actions necessary to correct identified problems, which may include reduction in the amount of ORV use, signing, barriers, partial or total closure, and structural solutions such as culverts and bridges.  (BMP 4-7)

    For more detail and an example of a scoping letter, please see CSNC’s scoping letter for the Eldorado National Forest ’s Route Designation Project at Sierranevadaconservation.org.

    Following “scoping” the forest will produce an environmental document (EIS or EA) that discloses their alternatives and environmental impacts associated with each alternative.  It is important to provide written comment on these as well.  The Forest Service will then issue a Decision Notice designating a route system.

Step 5…by September 2008

Issue Forest Orders; implement NEPA decision; involve the public.

By this step, we hope the Forest Service has listened to your sage advice and designated a safe, sustainable, manageable, enforceable and fair OHV route system.  If not…we’ll be looking at appeals.  The Forest Service says they will strive for a system arrived at by collaboration between all Stakeholders.  Let’s hope!

The Guidebook includes criteria for analyzing routes to determine whether or not a route is appropriate for designation as an ORV route.  These criteria include the direction in Executive Orders 11644 and 11989, to minimize conflicts with other users and residents, minimize harassment of wildlife and damage to habitat, vegetation and soils. Routes must also comply with Land Management Plan Standards and Guidelines, the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment and a myriad other laws, regulations and plans. 

The Guidebook requires that every potential route be analyzed, using specific criteria, unless previously designated.  However, it sets a standard for analysis that even previously designated routes must meet.

New Forest Service ORV regulations and how they may affect California ’s route designation process

Newly-adopted Forest Service regulations have added a layer of confusion over the California route designation process.  While these shouldn’t affect the timeline or the process, the new rules could have serious implications for OHV route designation on California Forests. 


As stated above, California is several years ahead of the process and has fairly firm timelines for completion of each step.  Thanks to the OHV Commission, California National Forests have dedicated funding to complete the process. Nationally, no additional funding for route designation has been appropriated, and while the new rule urges completion in four years, there are no penalties for not doing so.

The Good and the Bad

                The new rules are an improvement in some respects, but weaker in other ways.  The good news is that the Forest Service finally recognizes ORV damage on our National Forests is a huge problem. The bad news is that it doesn’t appear to be willing to take the bold steps needed to bring off road vehicles under control on our public lands.

§         One positive aspect of the national rule is that, because it specifies that only designated routes may be used by vehicles once designation is completed and maps are made available to the public, the cumbersome process of writing and adopting Forest Orders to close undesignated areas will no longer be necessary. 

§         The new rule clearly identifies user-created routes as “unauthorized” as opposed to the more neutral term “unclassified,” as used in the old rule (36 CFR 212.1).

§         The final rule implies that temporary closure orders may remain in place for longer than the one year allowed under the old rules.  Permanent closure would require site specific analysis (36 CFR 212.52)

§         One of the most positive changes in the rule is a requirement that the Forests consider their ability to maintain, administer and afford any system of routes designated for off road use.  Significantly, the rule does not mention “enforce!” (36 CFR 212.55)

There are also some potentially harmful changes to the rules also; including:

§         The Purpose and Need statement in the new rule eliminates language from the Executive Orders that stress the need to ensure that off road vehicles are managed to protect resources, promote safety and minimize conflicts (36 CFR 212.50).

§         The rules allow Forests to designate routes from which hunters may travel cross country in ORVs to retrieve game and for dispersed camping.  (36 CFR 212.51).  This would allow route proliferation to continue and could substantially undermine the concept of vehicle travel only on designated routes.  The key word here is “may” and California forests should all be encouraged NOT to use the exemption.

§         While the Executive Orders and previous regulations require closure of routes determined to be suffering considerable adverse affects until the damage is eliminated, the new rules use the terms eliminated or mitigated.  In addition, the new rules remove the provision for considering information from the public when determining “considerable adverse affects” and strikes the requirement for annual monitoring (36 CFR 212.52(b)

The new rules, contrary to the Executive Orders they are supposed to implement, do not require designated routes to “minimize” impacts, but merely to consider the impact with the “objective of minimizing.” 

§         There is no money being provided to forests to complete designation.  Fortunately, in California , the OHV Commission is providing funding!

So, there you have it.  Easy; get involved, get out in the forest, talk to the Forest Service staff, identify problem trails, tell the forest to only designate a system it can manage properly.  We are early in the process and our strategy may evolve as circumstances warrant.  For updates check the CSNC website at www.sierranevadaconservation.org.

With questions, email csnc@direcway.com.

Good luck, and thank you!