Feds tighten off-road travel rules | AspenTimes.com

Feds tighten off-road travel rules

The federal government came out with new rules for off-road vehicle use in national forests Wednesday that conservationists say will only make “a dent in a gargantuan problem.”The rules, adopted on a national level, mirror what was adopted in 2002 in the White River National Forest, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley. In both cases, the Forest Service said official roads and trails should be designated clearly on maps and marked in the field. The new presumption is any route not marked as open is closed and travel for anything from mountain bikes to Hummers is prohibited. The ruling out of Washington, D.C., also said thousands of miles of bandit trails off-road vehicle enthusiasts have created should be examined on the local level to determine if they will be added to the official network or closed.Vera Smith, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, said the national rules are an important first step but “disappointing” for what they didn’t do.”It’s inadequate,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like throwing a bucket of water on a burning hillside.”Highly anticipated rulingThe national ruling was highly anticipated because off-road vehicle use on public lands has soared in the past 30 years. Off-road enthusiasts are pushing for greater access while environmentalists want restrictions that protect wildlife habitat and sensitive areas.Dirt biker John Narby explained in previous interviews this summer that the number of local off-road enthusiasts has exploded, but the Forest Service has created no new trails for them. That invites creation of bandit trails, he said. He contended that the Forest Service would be better off designating official routes that don’t harm the environment.Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth labeled “unmanaged” off-road vehicle use one of the four greatest threats to national forests last year. That recognition of the problem led conservationists to believe the national policy would be bolder, Smith said.She tempered her criticism by noting that the national rules are “a step in the right direction.” Smith said 69 million acres of national forest, or about one-third of the country’s total, are still open to cross-country travel off designated routes. This ruling has the greatest impact on those lands by creating new restrictions, she said.Lack of enforcement dollarsA major disappointment for a national coalition of conservation groups, which includes the Colorado Mountain Club, is no money was allocated to help enforce the restrictions. They questioned whether the Forest Service is capable of keeping mountain bikes, dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles and jeeps off closed trails.There are three law enforcement officers patrolling the entire 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. Other rangers can enforce travel infractions, but that’s not their primary duty.Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Roaring Fork Valley’s Wilderness Workshop, labeled the lack of enforcement “the Achilles’ heel” of the national ruling. Off-road groups can continue to create bandit trails, then fight to have them designated as official routes by the Forest Service, he said.”You’ve got this plague of machines out there running willy-nilly,” Shoemaker said.But Shoemaker also said he applauds the Forest Service for its latest step. He said it provides a foundation for the agency, even if more enforcement dollars weren’t provided.”Without it, you can’t have a law enforcement opportunity,” he said.Access battles inevitableSmith said forest managers needed more national guidelines on trail designation. For example, the national ruling should have required that forest officials assess which routes are best suited for hiking, biking and horseback riding, and which routes are sustainable for off-road vehicle routes, she said.The ruling will do nothing to prevent battles between environmentalists and off-road enthusiasts over the status of thousands of miles of trails, particularly bandit trails. The White River staff is undertaking a study, known as a Travel Management Plan, to determine what routes will remain open and which will be closed. That study had been delayed to make sure it didn’t conflict with the national guidelines. Wendy Haskins, a planner for the White River, said the national ruling clears the way for completion of the local travel management study.The stakes are huge. There are between 2,000 and 2,500 miles of roads and more than 1,600 miles of trails in the White River National Forest. Wilderness Workshop and its allies claim there are another 500 or so miles of bandit trails, many of which they want to see closed.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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