Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is co-sponsoring a bill in Congress that would give county commissioners and small communities near national forests a commanding role in deciding where off-highway motor vehicles can be operated in 193 million acres of national forests.
These public lands belong to the people of Seattle just as much as they belong to the folks in, say, Republic. Yet, under HR 4272, the Ferry County commissioners would have a trump card they could play on a travel management plan.
“This is the first step in passing my common-sense bill to stop the misguided Travel Management Rule on national forests in the West and promote local control over future proposals that could restrict forest access,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., as the proposed Forest Access in Rural Communities Act was presented to a House Natural Resources subcommittee on June 10.
The act would require the approval of each affected county before travel management plans could be enacted on the federal lands regardless of what scientists, sportsmen and everyone else in the nation have to say.
Three local politicians could overrule the sentiments of the majority.
The bill would overturn the 2005 Travel Management Rule – enacted during the George W. Bush administration – that declared all national forest roads and trails closed to motorized use unless specifically designated as open.
Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth crafted the Travel Management Rule in response to the growth of off-highway vehicle use, which had more than doubled between 1982 and 2000. The old practice of putting up signs to indicate a route was closed to motor vehicles was abandoned because some drivers would simply remove the signs and go where they pleased.
As dirt bikers and ATVers became more adept at riding cross-country, road gates and blockages were being breached and unauthorized trails were being created at an alarming rate.
“Soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitat are affected,” the rule said, and conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreation swelled.
Commercial timber companies responded to the illegal trails and damage by locking more gates. Idaho Fish and Game responded to complaints and concern for big-game populations by prohibiting ATV-mounted hunters from driving off-trail on public and private lands in a third of the state’s wildlife management units.
The Travel Management Rule has forced the Forest Service to inventory roads and trails, hold public meetings, take comments and meet criteria before producing maps that designate which routes are open to motor vehicles.
Although everyone has a voice in this process, McMorris Rodgers contends the interests of local counties are overlooked. In a statement to my query about her sponsorship of HR 4272, she said:
“By ensuring those most directly affected by forest management decisions – like our local citizens and local governments – have a say in the process, we can improve access to our forests and make sure that they are not ignored so that ultimately our environmental quality is improved.”
Forest Service officials say many of the road closures that reduce motorized access are based on environmental reasons. Many forest roads built for timber sales, they say, were never meant to be left open after the logging was done.
Forest supervisors also say that travel management plans are among the most difficult decisions they have to make.
Repealing the rule “would be absolute insanity,” said Bethanie Walder, public lands director at WildEarth Guardians, which was among 61 environmental groups last week that signed a letter opposing the bill to the House subcommittee: “It does more than stop the rule in its tracks. It stops the Forest Service from managing off-road vehicles.”
“Our main concern with HR 4272 is that it disregards the time and effort that our members, sportsmen, ranchers and motorized users have put into travel management over the last two decades,” said Greg McReynolds, regional representative for Trout Unlimited.
“I’m not going to say travel management is perfect, because it’s not. It’s a collaborative process and the nature of collaboration is that we can’t all get what we want.
“It is a process though, and in the great majority of forest around the country, it is one that has worked well. There are many travel management plans in place that are a thoughtful balance of access and habitat and many of those have been in place for years.”
Forest Service officials point out that the agency’s budgets for just about everything have been slashed in recent years, including funding for road maintenance. With only three enforcement officers covering the entire 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest, officials say they cannot leave all the roads open for motorized travel – as demanded by some local governments – and still ensure protection for water quality, timber resources and wildlife.
McMorris Rodgers responded: “Local communities, based on their firsthand experience, have tremendous knowledge about their use of our national forests. This is knowledge that agencies should take into account when creating forest management plans. This legislation would ensure our local communities will have input before the U.S. Forest Service can close or decommission a road.”
The current Travel Management Rule takes all of this into account and gives rural communities a place at the negotiating with everyone else.
The only thing it doesn’t do is give local county commissioners a veto in the national public process. Leave the rule be.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.