Off-roaders, environmentalists to square off in Congress

The Wilderness Society says the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., will help underscore how an increasing number of powerful machines encroach ever farther into unsuitable territory.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho Falls-based group for motorized public land access, fears the committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., will use the occasion as a springboard for more restrictions following the 2008 congressional elections.

Scott Miller, the committee staffer who organized the oversight hearing, said the event will help inform senators about the debate and will be similar to a March 13 House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on the subject. There's no pending new legislation, he said.

"The popularity of ORVs on public lands has grown dramatically," Miller told The Associated Press. "As a result, the management challenges have grown dramatically as well. We're trying to get our members to better understand our issues."

National forests across America have been updating travel plans on 193 million acres of public lands since 2005, when the Forest Service changed its policy requiring all forests be closed unless posted open to off-road vehicles.

That's after ORVs rose to an estimated 43 million, according to the Blue Ribbon Coalition, from only about five million in the 1970s.

So far, 36 national forests in 24 states have published new travel plans, according to the Forest Service, leaving the bulk still to be completed in 2008 and 2009. There are 155 national forests and 22 national grasslands. The hearing will also include discussion of travel planning on the Bureau of Land Management's 264 million acres.

Brad Brooks, a Wilderness Society advocate in Boise, said conflicts in states including Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Arizona and Nevada point up the need to rein in off-road vehicle riders who stray from trails for the challenge of riding up steep slopes, exposing those slopes to erosion, weeds and other problems.

In the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon, for instance, dirt-choked runoff from illegal trails threatens native trout. And "mudders" in Washington state's Kittitas County every spring blaze through snowmelt-softened Forest Service meadows, damaging wetlands and costing taxpayers thousands for restoration.

"It's taken awhile to convince Congress of the magnitude of the problem," Brooks said. "These are problems that have started to escalate. We're at a point when we need to get a handle on this issue."

Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society's top lawyer, plans to testify Thursday that travel planning by the Forest Service and the federal BLM so far has designated thousands of miles of open trails that crisscross the West - sometimes without regard to whether they were created illegally or could do irreparable harm to other resources.

Other groups on the agenda are the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association, the American Motorcyclist Association, Trout Unlimited and the Blue Ribbon Coalition.

Brian Hawthorne, the coalition's public lands policy director, said its members favor responsible management of public lands, including commonsense riding restrictions. Still, they're leery that possible Democratic advances in Congress in the 2008 elections will signal more restrictive policies, trail losses and costlier penalties for those who stray off the beaten path.

Thursday's hearing, he said, may just be a precursor.

"The agencies have understood they needed to manage motorized recreation since the 1980s," Hawthorne said. "For some reason, they didn't grapple with it. Finally, we get the agencies to bite the bullet. And so you'd think the environmental community would be more supportive. But what we have is, hearings that are basically designed to bash the off-highway vehicle enthusiast."

One flashpoint has been planning efforts in the Sawtooth National Forest's Minidoka Ranger District, a 950-square-mile swath of remote hill country south of the Snake River in southern Idaho. After weathering three appeals, including from the Wilderness Society, new off-road vehicle travel maps there are due out by July 4.

That's despite a sharply worded April 14 Idaho Fish and Game Department letter that criticized the Forest Service for not incorporating the state agency's suggestions for trail restrictions to improve conditions for fish and wildlife and expand non-motorized hunting.

"It is regrettable the district chose to develop a proposed action alternative based primarily on several years of exclusive input from motorized-user groups," wrote Dave Parrish, supervisor of Fish and Game's region that borders the Minidoka district.

Scott Nannenga, the Minidoka ranger, said the maps grew from a sincere attempt to balance competing interests.

"I'm hoping we can work through some of these issues together," Nannenga told the AP, noting that "the travel plan allows us to update our maps every year."

By JOHN MILLER
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER