Forest Service Rule Revs Up Off-Road Vehicle Fight

WASHINGTON, DC, July 8, 2004 (ENS) - Some of America's 155 national forests and 21 grasslands have their own guidelines for where off-road vehicles can go, and some have none, but that will change into a single rule for the whole country under a U.S. Forest Service proposal released on Wednesday.

The Forest Service said its proposal "will enhance recreational opportunities for the public and better protect the environment" by requiring each forest or grassland to establish a designated system of roads, trails and areas where off-highway vehicles (OHV) are permitted to operate and where they are prohibited.

“The Forest Service wants to improve its management by balancing the public’s enjoyment of using OHVs with ensuring the best possible care of the land,” said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, a second generation forester.


OFf-road vehicle use in Utah's Arch Canyon degrades riparian vegetation and the waters of Arch Canyon Creek. (Photo courtesy SUWA)
Conservationists expressed partial approval but said the proposed rule does not go far enough to solve the growing problem of motorized vehicles in the nation's forests.

"OHVs are a great way to experience the national forests, but because their popularity has increased in recent years, we need an approach that will sustain natural resource values through more effective management of motor vehicle use," Bosworth said. "The benefits of improving OHV use include enhanced protection of habitat and aquatic, soil, air and cultural resources."

Nationally, the number of OHV users climbed sevenfold in the last 30 years - from five million in 1972 to 36 million in 2000. OHV users account for about 1.8 million or five percent of visitors to national forests and grasslands.

Currently each of the 155 national forests and 21 grasslands has guidelines for OHV use. Some national forests manage use on a designated system of roads, trails and areas, but others do not. As a result, the Forest Service does not have a clear, consistent policy regarding motor vehicle use on national forests and grasslands.

"While some forests have begun to designate roads, trails, and areas for OHVs, I expect units to make significant progress in improving management of OHVs in the next two years," said Bosworth.


Off-road vehicles on a designated trail (Photo credit unknown)
That time frame did not sound definite enough to meet with approval from American Lands Alliance National Forest Program Director Lisa Dix.

"The Forest Service refused to make any firm commitment to starting and completing the route designation process in a reasonable period of time in the proposed rule," Dix said late Wednesday.

"Even though Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has identified unmanaged off-road vehicle use as one of the greatest threats to National Forests, the proposal highlights the importance of 'enhancing' opportunities for off-road vehicle recreation rather than actually regulating ORV [off-road vehicle] use," she said.

Environmentalists say running the vehicles over erosive soils results in deep rutting, and soil and vegetation loss.

The Wilderness Society says, "Dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles are major sources of air, water, and noise pollution nationwide. Most already in use are powered by two-stroke engines, which are antiquated, highly-polluting, and inefficient. Off-road vehicles are a major source of pollution on America's national parks, monuments, forests, and other public lands."

"In general, the proposed rule does not go far enough to solve the ever-growing problem of unregulated ORV use on our National Forests," said Dix.


Off-road vehicles and RVs at California's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. (Photo credit unknown)
The proposed rule calls for the Forest Service to continue to engage with motorized sports enthusiasts, conservationists, state agencies, local governments, tribal governments, and others to identify routes offering the best opportunities for OHV use while still meeting its responsibility to protect the environment.

The public would continue to be allowed to participate in the process of designating roads, trails, and areas or revising designations and would continue to receive advance notice to allow for public comment on proposed or revised designations.

The agency has partnered with these groups in the past to provide enhanced motorized recreation opportunities by constructing, marking, maintaining and restoring trails as well as by providing training and safety instruction to users.

Dix says environmentalists should make their opinions known to the Forest Service. In her view, the Forest Service must designate roads and routes that are appropriate for off-road vehicle travel within two years.

At the end of two years, motorized vehicles should only use designated roads and routes and use of all unauthorized, renegade routes would immediately be banned, Dix says.

The roads and routes for OHVs should be designated based on "a full and public analysis of the site-specific environmental impacts and user conflicts," Dix contends, and effective monitoring and enforcement must be annually funded and implemented.

There are plenty of user conflicts. The American Sand Association, an OHV organization, on June 23 filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for refusing to take a plant - the Peirson's milk-vetch - from the federal endangered species list.

Listed as endangered in California and listed by the federal government as threatened, the vetch species grows on Bureau of Land Management land in the California Desert Conservation Area, particularly in an area favored by OHV riders known as the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.


American Sand Association members rally to reform the Endangered Species Act (Photo courtesy ASA)
Three conservation groups succeeded in pressuring the BLM to close nearly 800,000 acres of the dunes including the closure of 25,600 acres to camping east of the Glamis Dunes area. OHV groups said that dune users who normally camped in the newly closed area were forced to crowd into the limited camping area at Glamis.

The Off-Road Business Association is providing financial support as the American Sand Association attempts to have the Peirson's milk-vetch removed from the endangered species list.

In December 2003, the Off-Road Business Association contracted with John Stewart, director of environmental affairs for United Four Wheel Drive Associations to strengthen the recreationist efforts to oppose land closures.

"The year has been tumultuous for motorized recreation in California and across the nation," Stewart said last December. "The year has also seen the growth of coalitions of recreation interests to fight proposed access restrictions and new wilderness proposals."

"Recreation interests face unprecedented pressure from anti-access groups that seek to restrict access to public lands across the nation," said Stewart. "Building recreation coalitions and partnerships with businesses is necessary to secure access to public lands."

The Forest Service is accepting comments for the next 60 days. The rule text submitted to the Office of the Federal Register is available on:

Written comments may be sent to: Proposed Rule for Designated Routes and Areas for Motor Vehicle Use, c/o Content Analysis Team, P.O. Box 221150, Salt Lake City, Utah 84122-1150.

Comments also will be accepted by email to or by fax to 801-517-1014. Comments also may be submitted by following the instructions at the federal eRulemaking portal at: