Group calls off-road recreation a threat to public lands |

Group calls off-road recreation a threat to public lands

Andrew Pridgen
Appeal Staff Writer

A group of retired federal and state land managers and forest rangers called reckless off-road vehicle drivers the No. 1 threat to Western public lands. They reported that increasing numbers of riders combined with the growing power of the machines is endangering natural resources and public safety.

Local riders said it’s not the vehicles that are the problem, but growing restrictions.

“The El Dorado Forest is looking to close off 50 percent of their trails, even though their use has gone up 15 percent,” said Carson resident Brian Doyle, a spokesman for the Pine Nut Mountains Trails Association, a group of off-road enthusiasts who ride in Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties. “The increased use of the trails that will (remain open) will increase damage to the land. Unfortunately, closing trails is the agenda of the ‘environmentalists’ – which I say with reservation. I do more for the environment than most do. I consider myself an environmentalist.”

Last month, a Tucson, Ariz.-based teleconference was organized by an existing organization of federal employees, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which helped found the new group to combat off-road use of trails in the West, including Nevada.

Its members said that damage from off-road vehicles was most severe when riders left designated routes and headed into sensitive areas such as fragile desert and riparian areas.

Jim Baca, who headed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton, said cumulative effects of these vehicles added up to serious damage of watersheds. Matt Chew, former ecologist with Arizona State Parks, pointed out that “creeks are often the most drivable places, so they become highways.”

Several members of the group recalled numerous instances of fencing and signs being cut down.

Off-road enthusiast Doyle said his group encourages keeping the backcountry pristine and teaches rider etiquette.

“Since 1998, we’ve cleaned up 2,100 yards of trash and have removed 25 old cars from the backcountry,” he said. “We have a trail volunteer program where we go out in the field, talk to riders and teach them how to stay on trials and show them equestrian riders have the right of way. We have educational outreach that shows (riders) how to be responsible when they recreate.”

As various agencies, in particular the BLM and the Forest Service, have seen budgets and staff sharply cut in recent years, there hasn’t been enough money or staff to police legal trails or close illegal ones in a timely manner, members of the group said. Illegal trails are being blazed regularly, they said, making it difficult for future riders to distinguish legal from illegal routes.

In California alone, about 45,000 miles of roads and routes are open to off-road vehicles, according to Forest Service officials.

“I personally don’t see people going off the trail,” Doyle said. “A lot of the environmental groups are out to kick OHV users off the land, because it’s not something they would do – there’s kind of an agenda with them.”

Tom Egan, a former wildlife biologist with the BLM and the Forest Service in California, said “improper off-road vehicle use causes erosion, contaminates streams, spreads invasive plants, kills, harasses, and stresses wildlife, and creates noise in certain environments that are not pleasing to certain individuals like landowners or other recreationists.”

Members of the group insisted they were not trying to prevent motorized recreation.

But Brian Hawthorne, of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an off-road vehicle advocacy group, countered, “This seems like more of the same crisis-mongering from a group that is philosophically opposed to off-road recreation.”

Hawthorne said the coalition had always been willing to live with designated roads, trails and areas, but he argued that groups such as PEER were trying to drive them off all lands. Hawthorne challenged the new group to work with the off-road community.

In 2003, then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said rogue off-roading was one of the four main threats to national forests, along with fire, invasive species and loss of open space.

Egan said his group cited off-road vehicle use as the biggest threat because it contributed to the others. Vehicle tires tear up dirt, creating a haven for invasive weeds. These plants often are fuel for fires in the desert and allow them to start more easily and spread more readily. In addition, new developments near public lands bring more off-road vehicles to the area. To get to designated routes, riders often drive across private property or public lands that are off-limits.

Baca blamed off-road lobbying organizations, saying they pressured the White House to turn a blind eye to the damage. But others in the group said government agencies had failed to do their job.

Dan Heinz, a retired ranger with the Forest Service in Nevada, said regulating off-road users was a “tough, thankless job. It was one of the most controversial things a public land manager could do.”

He pointed out that even before the Bush administration, there was no support or instruction regarding the issue.

That’s where off-road enthusiasts said they come in.

“We talk to people about how to get involved in helping keeping the trials (pristine) for everyone,” Doyle said. “We also encourage the use of the quiet muffler, so everyone can enjoy their time in the outback.”

The Forest Service is preparing travel-management plans for national forests. Heinz said widespread public opposition to closing routes has made the planning process highly controversial.

On the Net

Pine Nut Mountains Trails Association visit:

U.S. Forest Service’s Carson Ranger District:

U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City Field Office:

• The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.