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Differing regulations creating confusion for trail riders

A slimmed-down utility-terrain vehicle, left, is same width as the ATV at right.
A slimmed-down utility-terrain vehicle, left, is same width as the ATV at right.

Slimmed-down versions of utility-terrain vehicles cannot be used on any trails on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.

But they are legal on all-terrain vehicle trails on forests to the north, south, east and west. The differing regulations are creating confusion for trail-riding enthusiasts and producing calls for the agency to come up with a uniform set of standards.

Utility-terrain vehicles, or UTVs, look like miniature Jeeps. They have brake and gas pedals, steering wheels, seat belts and roll bars. They allow two people to sit side by side and travel roads and trails. But until recently they have generally been too large to meet motorized trail standards set by the U.S. Forest Service.

But that is changing and quickly. In recent years, manufacturers, led by Polaris and its RZR line, started making slimmer UTVs that are only 50 inches wide. They have proved to be a popular alternative to ATVs, which have seats that riders straddle, are steered by handle bars and considered unsafe for two people.

“The number we sell is unbelievable,” said Todd Stenzel, sales manager for Bud’s Saw Service at Cottonwood. “They (the RZR line) are probably 40 percent of my ATV and UTV sales.”

By regulation, the U.S. Forest Service allows motorized vehicles that are no more than 50 inches wide to travel on some of its trails. In the past, that has meant dirt bikes and ATVs. Now, with the advent of UTVs that meet the 50-inch requirement, people are riding side by side on the Payette, Idaho Panhandle, Lolo and Umatilla national forests among others.

“If (trails) are open to ATVs, they are open to vehicles up to 50 inches,” said Larry Randall, recreation staff officer for the Umatilla National Forest at Walla Walla. “On the Umatilla, it’s all about the width of the vehicle.”

But that is not the case everywhere. In recent years, each forest across the country has either adopted motorized travel regulations or is in the process of doing so. Some of those forests are limited to motorcycles and ATVs for motorized travel.

For example, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest defines ATVs as vehicles that can be straddled and have handle bars. Its trails are closed to four-wheeled vehicles that don’t meet the definition. So 50-inch UTVs can’t be driven on the same trail a similar-sized ATV can travel. UTVs can, however, be used on forest roads open to full-sized vehicles.

Leaders of motorized recreation groups want the rules to be consistent from forest to forest.

“I would like to see it the same throughout the state of Idaho,” said Mark Jennings, president of the group Public Land Access Year-round.

“Guys (who ride UTVs) down on the Boise National Forest are just shocked when they learn they can’t come up here and ride them on the Clearwater National Forest.”

That could be changing. Rick Brazell, supervisor of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said he inherited the regulation when he came on board and is open to taking another look at it this winter.

“I would like to get the right people together, including the user groups and start looking at this issue of the 50-inch-or-less UTVs and what trails they can go on.”

He said he is concerned the UTVs might not be as safe as ATVs. For example, he noted riders are less able to influence the performance of the machines by leaning than are riders of ATVs.

“I would like the user groups to help us define the safety issue and see which trails can be opened and which ones shouldn’t and what we can do to modify those trails,” he said. “I’m pretty pro on trying to get them out there on the trails. They are a viable option and a valid recreation use.”

Some dispute that UTVs are less safe. Stenzel acknowledges riders are less able to lean, but he says the UTVs have lower centers of gravity and a longer wheel bases that makes them more stable.

“Plus you have the support of a roll bar,” he said.

The machines are particularly popular with older couples and people who aren’t comfortable with riding ATVs.

“The average age I’m selling them to is about 65 years old. You are seeing a lot of older people who are getting out in the woods and able to do things and see things.”