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TRAVEL-MANAGEMENT PLANNING

Finally, nearly 40 years after the signing of a presidential order designed to protect our forests from off-road vehicle abuse, the Forest Service is putting regulations in place to protect our public lands from further off-road vehicle abuse. The Travel Management Rule forces the Forest Service to designate routes and areas open to off-roading — reserving other areas for the benefit of wildlife, plants and quiet recreation.

The Center is dedicated to ensuring that the Forest Service prioritizes the protection of our natural resources for all Americans over the demand, from a small minority, for more and more motorized access. We’re playing a key role in ensuring that the Travel Management Rule is implemented appropriately to protect wildlife and habitat. We encourage all concerned citizens to join in this effort to reduce damage associated with off-road vehicles to protect public-trust resources, ensure the Forest Service adopts fiscally responsible road systems and secure recreational opportunities for quiet and low-impact users.

ARIZONA AND NEW MEXICO

Forests in Arizona and New Mexico offer some of the country’s most diverse natural resources in an arid and fragile environment that is exceptionally sensitive to the ravages of ORV abuse. Some of the finest rivers in the Southwest, such as the Blue and San Francisco rivers, are located on our public lands. These rare and valuable riparian areas are at high risk for long-lasting damage as all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes are allowed to keep ripping them up. The Blue Range Wilderness and Primitive Area spans the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests, linking habitat and wildlife corridors that are essential to the protection of threatened and endangered species, and it’s also at risk from unmanaged motorized recreation.

Arizona travel-management officials are proposing to allow hunters to drive cross-country to retrieve downed game for up to one mile in some areas; the Center is vigorously challenging those plans. Some forests are proposing 600-foot-wide corridors along thousands of miles of routes in which people will be allowed to drive anywhere they want to camp with their cars, RVs and trailers. These wide swaths will become zones of destruction where natural resources and critical habitat for endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl will be destroyed.

While New Mexico travel-management proposals wisely don’t include excessive provisions for cross-country motorized game retrieval, thousands of miles of motorized routes may be added to their already unmanageable systems. The Lincoln National Forest in south-central New Mexico can afford to maintain less than 20 percent of its current road system, yet it has scrapped its plans to develop a more manageable system. Forests in New Mexico are proposing routes crossing through streams and across fragile soils. The inability to maintain these routes will lead to erosion, habitat destruction and the loss of already threatened and endangered species. Off-highway vehicle registration laws can help in the battle against off-road damage, but it will take continued effort on the part of local residents to ensure that the registration funds go towards fixing badly eroded roads and closing unnecessary and harmful routes.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The Center is also closely monitoring travel-management planning on four Southern California national forests: the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino.

These four forests are ecological jewels at unique risk of harm from off-road and other motor vehicles. Encompassing over 3.5 million acres of coast, foothill, mountain, and high-desert terrain, the four national forests provide much more than pretty scenery. Much of the land here falls within the globally significant Mediterranean climate and ecological region known as the “California Floristic Province,” an 8-million-acre region stretching from southern Oregon to northern Baja, Mexico, west of the deserts and containing the richest diversity of plant and animal life of any region in the continental United States.

Yet this concentration of wildlife, plants, and wild nature is at extreme risk in the face of staggering growth in nearby urban areas. The national forests are located near 28 of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and 11 of the nation’s largest cities are located within a two-hour drive of most of the Southern California national forests. More than 20 million people live within the metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego areas, making this one of the most densely populated regions in North America. By 2020, the region’s population is expected to expand to 35 million people.

The Forest Service appears dead set on accommodating more inappropriate vehicle access on the Southern California national forests. On the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego and Orange counties, Forest Service officials have elected to skip any real travel analysis and have jumped to a proposal to add 12 miles of new roads and off-road trails, many of which are located in oak woodlands, other “Riparian Conservation Areas,” and endangered species habitat. To their credit, Cleveland officials have proposed to close harmful cross-country travel in two existing open off-road areas and have removed one proposed new route near an important raptor nesting site. But overall the Cleveland’s process is highly biased towards the addition of new routes, and the Center will continue to press not only for the elimination of new proposed routes but also numerous existing designated routes in sensitive areas.

NEVADA

Nevada’s Hunboldt-Toiyabe National Forest encompasses all portions of the state and a sliver of the Sierra Nevada range in eastern California. The 10 ranger districts on the forest comprise the largest national forest outside of Alaska and total more than 6.3 million acres — an area bigger than the states of New Jersey and Rhode Island combined.  There are nine life zones (called “ecotypes”) on the forest, ranging from alpine at the upper elevations to sagebrush and pinyon-juniper at the lower range, and the forest currently includes 23 congressionally designated wildernesses, totaling 1.2 million acres. While motorized recreation is popular on the forest, there is no good estimate of the current miles of motorized trails.

Hence, it’s timely that the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is conducting its travel-management planning under the 2005 national Travel Management Planning Rule. The managers of the forest have forsaken a forest-wide approach in favor of conducting travel analysis and planning within individual ranger districts or geographically based groups of districts.

Currently, planning has been completed on the Santa Rosa and Spring Mountains ranger districts, is well underway on the Ely Ranger District, and has yet to formally begin on the remaining districts. The Forest Service is projecting that all travel-management planning will be completed by the end of 2010.

The major concerns that the Center is bringing into the planning process involve the impacts of motorized recreation on:

  • imperiled plant and animal species and their habitats;
  • key areas of habitat for wildlife, such as wintering and birthing areas;
  • quiet recreational uses of the forest;
  • incursions into wilderness and inventoried roadless areas;
  • quality, fair-chase hunting opportunities;
  • streams and riparian zones;
  • areas of sensitive soils;
  • and the spread of noxious weeds and invasive species.

Motorized recreation may have a legitimate place on the forest, but only to the extent that the above concerns are satisfactorily addressed and that the motorized trail system can be adequately maintained and rules enforced.

San Bernardino National Forest photo by Monica Bond