Forest Service offering policy of putting up off-road blocks - Concerned about environmental damage, the government plans to restrict where vehicles can leave the beaten forest path

Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Oregonian

All-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, four-wheel-drives and other motor vehicles that now roam through some national forests would be confined to established roads, trails and zones under a new policy outlined Wednesday by the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth advanced the initiative to address an explosion of uncontrolled off-road vehicle use that he has described as a leading threat to the nation's public lands.

In Oregon and across the nation, the use by some individuals of off-road vehicles has wrought scarring damage to sensitive wetlands and forest ecosystems.

National forests subject to the new policy make up about one-fourth of Oregon's land area and have been crisscrossed in places by unauthorized roads blazed by off-road traffic.

"You begin to get these user-built trail systems where people see that someone else has driven, and so they follow," said Kurt Wiedenmann, La Grande district ranger for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. "They are almost never where you want them. They may be on steep slopes where you have erosion problems or across streams and wetlands."

Although most off-roaders drive responsibly, officials said, haphazard regulations that vary from forest to forest have not kept up with the growing maneuverability and horsepower of vehicles ranging from Hummers to dune buggies. Oregon's Siuslaw National Forest, home to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, counted the second-highest number of off-road vehicle users among all national forests.

An especially extreme brand of off-road driving known as "mudbogging," in which vehicles churn through muddy terrain, has torn up sensitive meadows and wetlands in some Oregon forests.

The new policy, now open to public comment, requires all national forests to identify specific roads, trails and areas where off-road driving will be allowed. Areas not specifically opened to such traffic would be considered closed.

That would reverse the current situation where many forest lands are assumed to be open unless closed, allowing drivers to roam at will.

The Bush administration supports the new policy, which started out with Bosworth, said spokesman George Lennon. He said Bosworth would have preferred to issue it much sooner but it has only just emerged from the bureaucratic pipeline.

Federal officials said new controls are essential because the number of people driving off-road in the United States more than doubled between 1982 and 2000 and the number of all-terrain vehicles in use rose by 40 percent from 1997 to 2001. Rutted landscapes have become more common in national forests, they said, compromising soil, water quality and wildlife habitat.

Although off-road driving may conflict with recreational uses such as wildlife watching, officials said, many people drive vehicles off roads in support of other recreational activities such as fishing and hunting. ATV users now account for about 5 percent of visitors to national forests and grasslands.

Steve Reeves of Boardman, a regional director of the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, said he is as disturbed as anyone by harmful off-road driving and reports any offenders he sees. But he said the new policy must strike a balance between protecting public lands and allowing people to use them for different forms of recreation.

"There are some areas that need to be set aside, that need to be protected, but there are areas where we can coexist with what's there," he said. "Some roads need to be done away with because they're trashed, but some roads need to be left open because people use them."

Environmental activists said the new policy is essential but needs to be strengthened with deadlines for forests to impose the new regulations.

"The key is really how this gets implemented," said Brett Brownscombe of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in La Grande. "It's not a no-use policy, but it's an important step toward a responsible-use policy."

The Forest Service will accept public comments on the new policy for about two months. Once the policy is made final, national forests around the country will begin to update their regulations to enact the new approach considering further input from local officials and the public.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; For more information:



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