Environmentalists say the U.S. Forest Service's latest effort to tackle rising off-road vehicle use falls short of what's needed to reduce pollution and ecological damage associated with the vehicles.
Federal foresters last week released a long-anticipated mandate meant to clarify what has been a confusing array of separate off-road policies in the nation's 155 forests and 20 grasslands.
Under the mandate, all forests will be required to design maps that specifically designate routes for off-road vehicles. Some currently open routes could be shut down as new ones are added in what will be a process involving the public.
Until now, vehicle drivers in some forests have been allowed to go anywhere they wanted. In others, such as Pike National Forest west of Colorado Springs, drivers have been limited to designated off-road trails -- although in many places, they illegally veer off those routes and cause damage.
A spokesman for Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who several times has publicly identified increasing off-road vehicle use as an environmental challenge in forests, says it is not clear whether there will be more or fewer off-road routes in forests when the planning is completed.
The mandate includes no hard deadline for project completion -- one of several issues environmentalists call critical weaknesses that might ultimately undermine the measure's aims.
"The Forest Service was so close to getting this one right," says Roz McClellan, director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative, adding that only time will tell if the policy has any effect.
She notes that there are no extra funds to empower foresters to get the job done in every forest. Also, there are no provisions for additional forest enforcement officers to ensure areas aren't being abused once routes are designated.
On average, each Forest Service law enforcement officer is responsible for overseeing 300,000 acres -- an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island, the Independent found in a recent investigation (see Ghost Roads, Aug. 12, 2004, at csindy.com).
Frank Landis, a Pike National Forest manager, acknowledges the shortcomings and admits the mandate leaves plenty of wiggle room for foresters to do little or nothing about off-road use. But he says he is eager to incorporate the off-road routes into the Pike forest's new maps by 2009 and to begin an education campaign for vehicle drivers.
"From my standpoint, it's just something we have to do," Landis says.
Meanwhile, a national off-road vehicle group representing an estimated 750,000 enthusiasts immediately hailed the mandate as a victory that will open up previously closed areas.
"For those forests that have not been very cooperative in their efforts to find routes for vehicles, Forest Chief Bosworth is now saying that this is a legitimate use of our natural resources," says Clark L. Collins, executive director of the Pocatello, Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition.
-- Michael de Yoanna