With some clearly defined lines and a set of new maps, the federal government is hoping to clear up confusion in the region’s backcountry forest playground.
Tonight, the U.S. Forest Service is hosting a meeting to begin the process of creating such a map for the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District, which attracts hikers and off-road vehicle riders from across the nation to its 1,200-mile network of trails and roads. A year from now, the agency will unveil a new recreation map outlining the different trails where it will be legal for motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles to ride, said Deputy Ranger Linda McFaddan.
Then, the Forest Service plans to begin creating similar maps for the St. Joe District, followed by the Sandpoint District and finally the Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake areas.
The Colville National Forest has been working on a new travel management plan for nearly two years. The forest was chosen as a test case for the national forest system. New trail maps for the Colville have recently been posted on the agency’s Web site and are expected to be printed for widespread use in coming weeks.
Any trails not designated on the maps will be off-limits to motorized vehicles. McFaddan said she doesn’t expect many changes from the way trails are managed now. “For the most part, they’re going to be minor tweaks.”
User groups are concerned, however, because some of their favorite trails are not on official maps. About 6,000 miles of old logging roads and trails crisscross the ranger district. Most have been decommissioned and are now growing over with brush. Ron Hood, a Wallace resident who leads the High Mountain ATV Association, said he’s been encouraging all-terrain vehicle riders to speak up to get their favorite trails on the map.
“It’s very important with these new rules that we get everything we want to use on the maps,” Hood said.
Hood is not against the tightened trail restrictions, but he is a bit worried about long-established routes being closed. Overall, he said, the agency is “going the extra mile to reach out and hear our input.” Hood also believes more consistency between national forests is needed.
“You almost have to be an attorney to ride if you cross into different areas,” Hood said.
The new maps and defined routes are part of a national directive to create a consistent off-road vehicle policy for all national forests by 2009. The Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District is also under a court order to create a new travel management plan within two years. The district’s earlier plan did not include enough analysis on possible environmental impacts to the forest, a federal judge ruled last year.
The agency wants input from both motorized- and silent-sports enthusiasts as it determines which trails are appropriate for recreationists, McFaddan said. Creating new routes on old roads and trails is possible, so long as the changes don’t require disturbing the land, she said.
“We’re willing to consider anything out there currently classified in our road system,” McFaddan said.
Grandfathering user-created trails off the road network would require more analysis to ensure the trails don’t harm water or wildlife habitat, McFaddan said. This would not be possible under existing timelines and budgets, she said.
All-terrain vehicle use has exploded in popularity in recent years. Last year, there were 104,127 ATVs and motorcycles registered in Idaho, compared to with 59,395 in 2001, according to data from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Any summer weekend afternoon spent on a local trail would show that most of the growth has been in ATVs.
Unlike motorcycles, which can take considerable skill and strength to pilot up steep mountain trails, driving a modern ATV is not much more difficult than steering a car. This has given access to national forests to even those with major physical disabilities. Although many riders are content with cruising down quiet national forest system roads, many others want a challenging ride, said Tom Crimmins, a Hayden resident and professional trail consultant.
Crimmins supports the idea of banning off-trail travel, but he thinks the Forest Service ought to be doing more to provide a variety of trails for ATV users. “The only way that you are going to get a successful system is if you develop a system that people want to stay on, not that they have to stay on,” said Crimmins, who spent 32 years working for the Forest Service.
The forest is crisscrossed with logging roads, but they were designed to accommodate logging trucks. ATV riders and motorcyclists want tight and twisty trails with up-and-down grades, Crimmins said. If the Forest Service simply designates old logging roads as trails, riders will likely continue venturing off the roads and looking for thrills in sensitive wildlife areas, like swamps and trout streams.
“People are going to go out, ride the roads for a while, then they’re going to go have fun,” Crimmins said.
Deputy Ranger McFaddan said the new travel maps will not be etched in granite. The agency will review the maps yearly and make necessary changes.
Ginger Swisher, the Forest Service law enforcement patrol captain for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said the consistency between national forests will help make it easier for the public to ride within the law. The travel plan changes will not only result in a single policy for every forest in the nation, but improved trail signs are also expected to be installed.
“I’m happy to see it. Hopefully it will make our job as enforcement officers easier,” Swisher said. “It’s going to bring a lot of clarity to the issue.”