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Off-road-vehicle bans seem to please no one

Environmentalists say latest national-forest restrictions are too lax; ORV fans say they’re too strict.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2008

Dirt bikers: Jeff Brown (r.), a high school teacher, and Richard Vander Meeden, a retired sales executive, finish a ride in an ORV-approved section of Eldorado National Forest.

Mark Clayton

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Eldorado National Forest, Placerville, Calif.

After a body-and-machine-pounding ride beneath the high-pine canopy of the Eldorado National Forest in east-central California, Kevin Wigham sits with his buddies by their knobby-tired motorcycles, mulling a collective dread: Fewer trails to ride.

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Here in the Eldorado, which some regard as “ground zero” for the growing national debate over off-road vehicles on public lands, the template for future action across millions of federal acres could be set, observers say. A new official Eldorado map finalized last week eliminates about 500 miles of “user created” routes (trails and roads) that were never permitted by the Forest Service.

That “motorized vehicle use map” is the culmination of years of debate and legal action. It leaves in place more than 1,000 miles of dirt roads and 210 miles of trails for off-road vehicles (ORVs) in Eldorado. Environmentalists say it’s still too much and the budget for enforcing it too small. Enthusiasts chafe under the new restrictions and some ignore them, though at least one major off-road group concedes it’s time for some “management.”

“Even with the [trail] closings ... there’s still a lot out there,” says Mr. Wigham. “But I personally hate to see them closing any type of trail. I don’t know why they do it. We’re not hurting anything.”

Still, some 11.5 million visitors rode ORVs in national forests last year. Some rode designated trails; others churned up forest floors, damaged root systems, and accelerated erosion, environmentalists say. The vehicles can leave lasting scars on landscape and drive away wildlife and nonmotorized human visitors.

Clashes over off-road vehicles on public lands aren’t new. President Nixon in 1972 issued an executive order requiring federal land managers to minimize environmental damage and social conflict by designating trails acceptable for off-road use. But after decades with little change in the restriction of off-road use in national forests, coupled with fast-rising interest in off-road riding, environmentalists filed suit in the Eldorado in 2003.

Congress last month concluded its first hearings on ORV impacts on national forests and millions of acres of public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. While the BLM is taking some action, it is the Forest Service that is charging ahead to regulate ORV use.

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