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US Forest Service Releases Flawed Off-Road Vehicle Regulations:
Bush Admin. Final Rule Fails to Fully Protect National Forests from Damage, and Falls Short in Minimizing User Conflicts

NEWS RELEASE: November 2, 2005

Contact: Chris Kassar, Wildlife Biologist 775-240-2862; Todd Schulke, Forests Program Director 505-574-5962

WASHINGTON - The final rule governing the use of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on national forests fails to strengthen the Forest Service’s protection of resources on public lands and further degrades its ability to effectively prevent the continued creation and use of unauthorized, renegade routes on National Forests. The rule, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service today, is an attempt to address increasing management challenges due to ever-growing human impacts on national forests by designating routes, trails and areas that are open to off-road vehicle use.

“Our public lands are being subject to unprecedented intrusion as motorized excess increases. The Forest Service has a legal and ethical responsibility to protect natural resources on our public lands,” said Chris Kassar, Wildlife Biologist and Off-Road Vehicle Reform Coordinator with the Center. “The rule released today is one step toward fulfilling this responsibility and we commend the Forest Service for taking action,” Kassar continued. “Overall, however, it falls short of meeting the expectations the public has management of off-road vehicles on America’s National Forests.” She adds, “Our country needs regulations that will bolster the Forest Service’s ability to better manage off-road vehicles. Instead, these updated regulations have weakened the agency’s obligation to comply with the Executive Orders and to minimize damage and conflicts with other forest users. This would allow degradation of natural resources to continue.”

According to recent USDA surveys, the number of off-road vehicle users in the United States has increased from 5 million in 1972 to 36 million in 2000 up to 51 million in 2004. In addition to a burgeoning number of users, there is also the issue of growing and uncontrolled proliferation of trails due to repeated cross country travel by off-roaders. Unauthorized, user-created trails from motorized use are responsible for a significant amount of the natural resource damage on national forests and are a serious challenge for law enforcement and land managers.

In an attempt to gain control of this problem, the final rule states that all 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in the country will work collaboratively with the public to identify and designate roads and trails that are suitable for motor vehicle use. The rule does not, however, provide a time frame for completion, nor does it guarantee funding for realization of these goals. Without a solid timeline and dedicated funding for designating vehicle routes as well as non-motorized trails, off-road vehicle abuse will continue to harm wildlife habitat, quiet recreation, and private landowners.

The Natural Trails and Waters coalition agreed that long-term success depends on agency commitment and effective enforcement. Jim Furnish, retired Deputy Chief who served for more than 30 years at all levels in the Forest Service, said, “I applaud the Forest Service for taking on the off-road vehicle issue. However, the Forest Service has simply failed to create a solution capable of beating the problem. What's lacking is the assurance of tough enforcement and evidence of backbone needed to bring this runaway problem under control.”

"We're happy to see the Forest Service move forward with a plan to deal with off-road vehicle impacts. Hopefully this new rule will result in a manageable off-road vehicle program that stops damage to wildlife and wild places,” stated Todd Schulke, Forests Program Director with the Center in Silver City NM.

“The true test of this rule will come in the next year,” added Kassar. “The Forest Service has an opportunity to create change by creating manageable and enforceable off-road vehicle route networks that minimize damage to wildlife habitat and decrease user conflicts. Dedicating funding to increase law enforcement will be imperative to the success of this effort.”

Kassar noted that one feature of the new rule is welcomed by conservation organizations. The new rule reverses the long standing policy in many national forests that ORV use is permitted wherever it is not posted as prohibited. Instead, ORV use will now only be permitted where signs indicate. “It used to be that users would remove the signs and then claim they didn’t know an area was closed to off road driving,” she said. “Finally that loophole has been closed.”

The Center will be closely following and influencing this forest planning effort.

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