Federal Land Access Under Scrutiny

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TWO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES are responsible for designating the routes open to OHV use on most public lands, and they want your help. Here's what you should know about them, and how you can influence their decisions.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It manages 258 million acres of public land, more than any other federal agency. According to the bureau, more than 57 million people live within 25 miles of these lands, mostly in the West.

In 2001 the BLM released the National Management Strategy for Motorized OHV Use on Public Lands (download it at www.blm.gov/ohv). The 54-page document offers general guidance to land managers. It recommends actions for creating a local framework for reviewing and resolving OHV issues, including designations, signs, maps, impacts on the environment, road and trail design, maintenance, law enforcement and budgetary needs. BLM lands are designated as open, limited or closed to OHV use. In limited areas, use is restricted to certain times or to designated routes.

In 2005, the BLM felt it necessary to revise and distribute to field officers its Land Use Planning Handbook, which requests that all new land use plans developed by the BLM address public access, travel management and OHV area designations.

In December 2007, the BLM apparently felt another kick in the pants was needed. It sent out further guidance asserting that continued designation of large areas that remain open to unregulated cross-country travel is not a practical management strategy. Instead, the bureau directed its officers to focus OHV travel on designated roads and trails, even though the officers can still designate some areas as wide-open. According to the bureau, this guidance addresses route planning, inventory and evaluation, partnerships, user education, mapping, signing and law enforcement.

With the completion of new or updated local plans (called Resource Management Plans, or RMPs), the amount of limited land has increased and the number of open acres has decreased. Consider, for example, the 2008 RMP for Ely, Nev. The number of acres open to cross-country use declined from 9.8 million acres to zero acres. More than 1 million acres are closed to OHV use because they are congressionally designated wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. OHV use on the remaining 10.3 million acres is limited to designated roads and trails.

The BLM estimates that its mapping process will take about 10 more years to complete. The agency employs 195 law enforcement rangers and 56 special agents, about one employee for every 1.2 million acres. Because of this, the agency says collaboration with partners is crucial. In Colorado, for example, OHV groups have stepped forward to assist in the education of off-roaders. In Oregon, partnerships have formed between user groups, local and state governments and federal agencies to provide education, enforcement and trail maintenance programs.

Then there is the National Forest System, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It manages 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 42 states and Puerto Rico. The agency estimates that off-roaders (not including snowmobile riders) visit National Forest System lands about 11.5 million times per year. The Forest Service manages about 144,000 miles of trails, with an estimated 33 percent (47,000 miles) open to motor vehicle use, including snowmobiles and motorized watercraft operating on water trails. As of January, about 64 million acres (33 percent) of National Forest System lands were completely open to cross-country motor vehicle use.

This is about to change. In November 2005, the Forest Service adopted the Travel Management Rule, which mandates that its local officials designate those roads, trails and areas where motor vehicle use is be allowed. Designations are to be made by class of vehicle and by time of year. Officers must follow a procedure that allows for public comment. Once they come up with a "final rule," they publish a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) for their area. After this, driving a motor vehicle to a dispersed campsite is allowed only within a specified distance of certain designated routes.

Some forests already had designations in place and therefore came up with final rules rather quickly. Others have a lot of work to do. In the government's fiscal year 2007 (ending September 2006), 36 national forests and grasslands completed their designation decisions and produced an MVUM. This represents only about 12.5 percent of NFS lands. In fiscal 2008, 41 units are scheduled to be completed; in fiscal 2009, 64 units; and in the first quarter of fiscal 2010 (i.e., the last quarter of 2009), the remaining 35 units are scheduled for completion. You can see the full schedule, along with all the maps already produced, at www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/ohv.

Prior to the Travel Management Rule, the only way the Forest Service could enforce restrictions was through issuance of a forest order. The content of these orders varied from unit to unit, and in some cases numerous orders existed on a single forest. According to the NFS, this confused people. Another regulation commonly enforced prior to the Travel Management Rule was the prohibition of using a vehicle in a manner that damaged the land. Whether a rider was doing this was left to the judgment of the officer, and the violation was difficult to prove in court.

So the new system clarifies requirements, and according to the NFS, makes it easier for responsible OHV users to comply with regulations. The Travel Management Rule also simplifies enforcement by replacing forest orders with issuance of an MVUM, which, in addition to being posted on the Web, is made available at the forest supervisor's or district ranger's office.

A third land agency is worth noting: The National Park Service limits OHV access to routes over sand on national seashores in the continental U.S. There is, however, significant use in Alaskan national parks.

MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD

Ask the land agencies why they have renewed their efforts to designate routes, and they will likely credit the increase in OHV use. Greg Mumm, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, offered up another explanation in recent testimony before Congress: "By the late 1990s, the pace of litigation and pressure from both preservationist groups and the motorized community reached a critical stage. An anti-OHV lawsuit making its way to the Supreme Court apparently spurred both agencies into taking concrete action. ... The development of regulations and policies that identify OHV recreation as a legitimate use of public lands and national forests are important benchmarks. Requiring that motorized vehicles to be limited to designated roads, trails and 'off-road areas' has been a significant step toward making managed recreation a top priority of both BLM and USFS."

But in an article published in the October 2007 issue of Off-Road Business Magazine, William Dart reported that some national forest managers have adopted draconian proposals, even going as far as refusing to designate a single trail. Dart is the director of land use for the Off-Road Business Association.

The first step in designating an OHV route system is to inventory what is on the ground. In many forests, there are routes that were not built by the USFS and are not on its maps. Therefore, Dart said, off-roaders need to make sure that all routes they want designated are on the USFS route inventory. If the routes aren't inventoried, they won't be considered for designation. Even when added to the inventory, a route won't be automatically designated for OHV use. It will have to undergo scrutiny and environmental analysis to determine if such use impinges on resources such as soils, water, wildlife or cultural sites.

The public has an opportunity to comment on each proposal. Sustainability, maintenance and feasibility factors also play a role. "Most dealers know their local riding areas, or at least know customers and local club leaders who do," Dart wrote. He then listed four things you can do:

1. Call the supervisory office for the national forest you are interested in. Ask where they are in the route designation process.

2. If they've started, ask if they've completed their route inventory. If they have, ask to see the maps so you can verify that everything important to you is on the inventory.

3. If routes you're interested in aren't on their inventory, offer to help and provide information to document the route. This could be as simple as drawing it on a topo map or, ideally, providing them with a GPS track. Even inexpensive consumer GPS units are accurate enough to be useful, so offer to go out and ride the route to help them.

4. When a draft of the Travel Management Plan is released, get a copy and review the document and maps, and write your comments on the proposals. There will be several alternatives, including one proposed for adoption. Focus on this proposal, as well as on any alternative you like better. If you don't know how to comment, contact ORBA (www.orba.biz). The association will help you with everything you need to know.

A similar process could be used when dealing with the Bureau of Land Management or state-level agencies, many of which are also designating areas and routes.