Destructive Sierra Nevada Off-road Vehicle Plan Challenged

Sacramento, Calif.– Advocates for quiet recreation, clean water, and wildlife habitat today filed a legal challenge to the Eldorado National Forest’s 2008 Travel Management Plan, charging the plan illegally prioritizes off-road vehicle use at the expense of traditional recreation and forest health.

The Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity, and Forest Issues Group filed their complaint in federal court in Sacramento. Today’s lawsuit follows up on a 2005 court ruling in which a federal judge ordered the Forest Service to analyze the impacts of off-road vehicles in the Eldorado National Forest. The conservation groups are challenging the Eldorado Forest supervisor’s March 31, 2008 decision because it failed to undertake the required planning for a minimum motorized system, adopted illegally created routes, and authorized routes that will cause unacceptable impacts to streams and aquatic resources including the threatened California red-legged frog and its habitat.

“Everyone has a right to enjoy our forests,” said Karen Schambach, president of Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation. “But nobody has the right to destroy them, or to deny others their own right to enjoy the forest. Under the March 31, 2008 decision, forest visitors will be hard-pressed to find a quiet place for camping or hiking, other than designated wilderness areas.”

The Eldorado National Forest includes key recovery habitat for the California red-legged frog, Yosemite toad, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, and many other imperiled species. The travel-management plan allows off-road vehicles to continue to degrade riparian areas and wet meadows that provide essential habitat for these and other sensitive species.

“The Eldorado National Forest ’s decision failed to protect red-legged frog habitat and other riparian areas from off-road vehicle destruction,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This plan falls far short of providing the management needed to preserve our forests and wildlife for future generations. Instead of identifying a minimum motorized transportation system for the forest, the Eldorado adopted a route system that is far larger than needed, which fragments important habitat, impairs water quality, and undermines forest health.”

As part of the planning process, the Forest Service should have first identified a minimum motorized transportation system for the forest as required by the agency’s own regulations. The Eldorado National Forest ignored this requirement, and the resulting decision fails to protect key environmental resources and adopts excessive and redundant routes that will undermine forest health, water quality, and fragile habitats.

Unmanaged outdoor recreation, in particular off-road vehicle use, was identified by former chief Dale Bosworth in 2005 as one of the four principle threats to our national forests. Although the challenged decision prohibits cross-country off-road vehicle travel, which has done severe damage to the forest in the past, it allows the continued degradation of wildlife habitat, especially in key riparian and meadow areas, by approving illegally created routes and failing to analyze the minimum required road system.

“The Forest Service itself has long been aware of the risk posed by surplus roads and in fact has compared them to ‘loaded guns waiting for the next large storm to fail’ and damage forest habitat,” said Western Environmental Law Center attorney David Bahr. “The agency developed regulations specifically to minimize its travel system ‘footprint,’ and these rules are being violated on the Eldorado.”

While at the policy level the Forest Service has recognized the potential great harm vehicles can cause to the national forests and the plants and wildlife found in them, the implementation of travel-management planning has, for the most part, left much to be desired in terms of on-the-ground impacts.

The Forest Service’s governing Travel Management Planning Rule of 2005 was precipitated by abusive, uncontrolled motorized use, resource damage, and excessive route density and redundancy, and was designed to help the Forest Service better control motorized recreation use.