Forest Service alters off-road rules

by Michael Doyle

The Sacramento Bee Washington Bureau

Thursday Nov. 3, 2005

WASHINGTON - California's off-road enthusiasts will face new limits under first-of-their-kind Forest Service rules made final Wednesday.

Some favorite Sierra Nevada play areas might go out of bounds. Overall, though, Forest Service officials contend, the new restrictions will better balance recreation and resource conservation.

"Our goal is to improve opportunities for motorized recreation and still ensure the best possible care of our land," Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said Wednesday.

With political engines revved up on all sides, the Forest Service did not impose a single national standard. Instead, each national forest - including the 19 in California that together encompass 20 million acres - must identify which areas are open for vehicle use.

Currently, some forests restrict vehicles to certain areas while others let them roam relatively freely. By requiring all 155 national forests and 20 national grassland areas to spell out where off-road vehicles can and cannot go, the new rule gives land managers the order they've long wanted. The new forest rules will identify what kind of vehicles will be permitted on what roads and trails and during what times of the year.

More generally, the new rules reverse how the Forest Service regulates vehicles. Instead of allowing them everywhere they are not explicitly prohibited, they will now be prohibited everywhere they are not explicitly permitted. Some forests are already moving in this direction.

The Eldorado National Forest, for one, tallies off-highway vehicle use on about 2,100 miles of roads and trails. By next October, acting under court order, the forest will have completed its environmental study formally designating what can remain open to vehicles. The Stanislaus National Forest likewise just completed public hearings in September on its vehicle use plans, and the Sequoia National Forest is close to issuing orders banning cross-country vehicle use.

By September 2008, aided by $2 million a year in state funds, all of the national forests in California are supposed to finish their vehicle-use maps.

"They're finally taking their responsibilities to manage off-road vehicles seriously," said Karen Schambach, president of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, "but they should have been a lot bolder."

Schambach's conservation group, based in Georgetown, in El Dorado County, successfully sued the Forest Service to compel completion of the new vehicle use plans on the Eldorado National Forest. She said the Forest Service fell short by not setting a two-year deadline for all vehicle-use maps nationwide, and she criticized the agency for not providing additional funds to speed the work.

Conservation groups also want to ensure the final maps minimize environmental damage. Forest managers will collaborate with local residents and others in completing the maps.

"The biggest concern we have is that the rules are fairly implemented and that routes aren't eliminated that are legitimate routes," said Dick Taylor, owner of a Bakersfield tire store and president of the Kern Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

Taylor said he considered the new Forest Service rules "a prudent move" even as he stressed that "proper public input" will be needed in crafting each forest's individual plan.

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