Dirt bikes, four-wheelers and other off-road vehicles will soon be required to stay on the trails, according to a proposal announced Wednesday by the U.S. Forest Service.
Restricting motorized vehicles to designated trails nationwide will help protect streams and lakes, wildlife habitat and solitude for those who don’t rely on gasoline to visit national forests, according to Forest Service officials. Snowmobiles are not covered by the proposal.
Off-highway vehicle clubs have expressed support for the change, but also concern that too many acres of national forest could soon be locked up. Conservation groups, on the other hand, say the proposal is toothless.
“It’s very well intended, but this rule falls short,” said Tom Uniak, conservation director for the Seattle-based Washington Wilderness Coalition. “There’s going to have to be funding and monitoring for this.”
Don’t expect big changes anytime soon. The public will be involved in any decisions to designate specific riding areas, said Idaho Panhandle National Forests Supervisor Ranotta McNair. The process could begin within a year. Many of the decisions will be made during the current process of rewriting the region’s forest management plans.
According to the Forest Service, off-road vehicle use in national forests has gone up 109 percent since the early 1980s. The agency also has seen a massive increase in the number of hikers, backpackers and bird watchers.
There’s still enough room for everybody, McNair said.
“We’ve got the ground,” she said. “The question is, can we come together at a table and work out our differences?”
National forests in the Coeur d’Alene area have already been switching to a system where motorized vehicles are allowed only on designated trails, McNair said. Because of North Idaho’s steep terrain and thick forests, off-trail travel hasn’t been a major concern. The forests are often impenetrable by wheeled vehicles without a trail. Cross-country travel is already banned in Montana.
Last year members of a North Idaho motorized vehicle club helped build 34 miles of new trail for all-terrain vehicles near the Fourth of July Pass east of Coeur d’Alene. The trail is one of the few places in the area set aside for ATV enthusiasts, said Don Hull, a board member of Northwest Access Alliance.
“It’s already getting overused,” said Hull, who would like to see at least 300 miles of designated trails in North Idaho. A ban on cross-country travel is needed, he said. “If they allow us enough access through old roads and trails, we don’t have a problem with it. They do have to limit cross-country travel, but I’d hate to see it all gone.”
Off-road vehicles have become more popular, Hull said, because they offer new access to the forest for people whose physical abilities are limited because of age or infirmity.
David Heflick, with the Kettle Range Conservation Group, said laws dating back to the Jimmy Carter administration already exist that prohibit motorized vehicles from running free over the forest. The problem is, there’s been little enforcement, he said. The 65-page proposal includes no mention of additional funding for policing the trails, or even studying which trails are most appropriate for motorized vehicles.
And without a timeline, Heflick said he fears additional trails will continue to be created.
“Once the use-slash-abuse gets established, it’s very hard to pull it back,” he said.
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