In the News  Archive

Forest Service Seeks Limits On All-Terrain Vehicles

The New York Times
June 8, 2014

By Felicity Barringer

Facing mounting fiscal and environmental costs from damage done by the sevenfold increase in off-road vehicles in national forests in the past 30 years, the Forest Service has for the first time proposed a rule that could eventually limit their use. But an agency spokesmen said Wednesday that no extra money had been set aside to enforce the new regulation.

The proposal, announced Wednesday, would require the national forests to restrict off-road vehicles to designated trails. Some of the 155 national forests, like Georgia's Chattahoochee-Oconee Forest, which designates more than 110 miles of all-terrain-vehicle trails within its 865,000 acres, already do so. Others, like the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, permit cross-country riding with few restrictions.

''I call these sacrifice zones,'' said Wayne Jenkins, a volunteer with Georgia Forest Watch who has studied the use of trails for all-terrain vehicles in the Chattahoochee. ''You take a gas motor and hook it to a vehicle with big, rubber, knobby tires, and ride it around as fast as you can on steep slopes, where the soils are thin, in a high rainfall area. What are you going to get? Bleeding soil into nearby streams.''

Mr. Jenkins's 2001 study estimated that user-created ''outlaw'' trails covered five times as much ground as designated trails and put the annual maintenance and repair bill at $990,000. The Forest Service's chief, Dale Bosworth, has repeatedly cited unmanaged recreation as one of the four greatest threats to the forest.

The proposed rule, which is open for comment for 60 days, covers a variety of motorized off-road vehicles, including dirt bikes and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, but exempts snowmobiles, saying that the impact of these vehicles on snow and the ground beneath is less than those of the all-terrain vehicles on muddy or sandy soil.

Scott Kovarovics, director of the National Trails and Water Coalition, said the proposal was a worthy first step, but fell far short of what was needed to protect forest habitats. Mr. Kovarovics said that the final rule should set a two-year deadline for completion of the trail designations, immediately bar all use of the user-created ''renegade routes'' and ensure that the designations made could be enforced.

The damage from the incessant use of motorized vehicles on trails is stark. Deep gouges scar miles of a trail that slides around the edge of Oakey Mountain near here, and even this trail's most ardent off-road vehicle users, like a club that calls itself the Possum Patrol, have united with conservationists and the Forest Service to improve it. They plan to reroute part of the trail that has spilled large amounts of sediment into Chastain Branch, a stream where trout are to be reintroduced.

One aim of the rule, said Rick D. Cables, a regional forester, is to ''stop proliferation of new roads and trails, which add to our inventory'' of areas that need maintenance or rehabilitation. The current patchwork of practices from one forest to the next, and around the 21 national grassland areas also covered by the rule, ''is so inconsistent that users who want to be responsible don't know how to do it,'' Mr. Cables said.

At the end of the process, a national atlas of open and closed roads and trails will be available, and every forest will use the same designations to alert visitors to their options.

Forest Service spokesmen said Wednesday that no specific money had been set aside for this purpose.

Jack Troyer, a regional forester, said that the service was spending ''a lot of money'' in administering recreational use of forests.
The rule, Mr. Troyer said, could move the agency toward setting priorities and obtaining money from a variety of recreation and conservation accounts.

While the increase in all-terrain vehicles in the forests rose to 35 million visits in 2000 from 5 million in 1972, in the past two decades nonmotorized activities have also soared. The Forest Service proposal said bird watching had increased 231 percent since the early 1980's, hiking 193 percent and backpacking 182 percent.

''The challenge for recreation management is to address the needs and conflicting expectations of millions of people who use and enjoy the National Forests, while providing for long-term sustainability of National Forest System lands,'' the agency proposal said.

The tension is palpable. As he sat by the Chastain Branch and described some of the work his fellow Possum Patrol members were doing to maintain trails, Rick Browning said, ''It's our forest too.'' A banking consultant and former banker who bought his first all-terrain vehicle eight years ago after his bank repossessed it, he said of his hiker and conservationist antagonists, ''What makes them think their way of using it is the only way?''

Public lands from Moab, Utah, a haven for mountain bikers who can tear off the thin tissue of soil on the rocks, to the Chattahoochee Forest along most of Georgia's northern border, which is within a 90-minute drive of perhaps 10 million people, show the scars of urban dwellers' weekend encounters with nature.

Speaking broadly of the timbering, wildfire and recreation issues that are at the forefront of Forest Service concerns, the agency chief, Mr. Bosworth, said in a recent interview, ''We've been taking from national forests for pretty near 100 years and I think it's time for reinvestment, to get the national forests in good healthy condition.''

In the Southeast, the popularity of all-terrain vehicles is widespread. On Monday at the Oakey Mountain trail, riders were there from Atlanta, more than 90 minutes away, and Piedmont, S.C., more than two hours away. With a downpour having saturating the soil in much of the Chattahoochee, the Oakey Trail was the only one open on the weekend.

Access to public lands is essential, said Alisha Driggers, 19, one of the Piedmont contingent. ''We can't afford to buy land to ride on,'' she said.

But the wilder riders, who gun their wheels in the mud, leaving huge ruts, and shoot off-trail and up the steepest slopes available, have largely defined the public perception of the sport. Asked about the appeal of mud, Ms. Drigger said: ''I like getting muddy. If you haven't gotten muddy, you haven't ridden.''

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