New rule limits off-road vehicles

The U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy Wednesday to restrict off-road vehicles to designated areas in national forests and grasslands in an effort to reduce environmental damage and conflicts between users.

The regulation requires all 155 national forests and 20 grasslands to work with the public and conduct an environmental assessment to select roads, trails and other areas for off-road vehicles. No additional funding for enforcement of the designated areas was included in the measure.

Forest Service officials said they hope the plan will restrain the proliferation of unauthorized roads and trails on public lands nationwide.

"We want to allow people to use off-highway vehicles and all-terrain vehicles and give them a loop trail system to do it," said Dan Jiron, Forest Service national press officer. "At the same time, we need to protect wildlife habitat, water and resources of the forests in general."

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has asked the forests to submit final designation plans, including a map, in the next four years, Jiron said.

The rule will restrict all-terrain vehicles, off-road vehicles and motorcycles. Over-snow vehicles, such as snowmobiles, will still be permitted outside designated areas. 

The Prospect Ranger District in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has already established a 250-mile system of routes designated for off-road vehicles, said Patty Burel, forest spokeswoman. 

Under the new rule, that plan may remain in place.

"Prospect’s designated trail system is much like the system called for in this rule," Burel said.

Off-road vehicles are prohibited throughout the forest in botanical areas, wilderness areas, open meadows, prairies, grasslands and pine oak savannas. Forest supervisors also have the authority to ban off-road vehicles in other places they deem at risk.

In other parts of the forest, off-road vehicles are legal everywhere except in places where signage says otherwise. 

Bosworth has characterized unmanaged off-road vehicles as one of the four major threats facing national forests. The others are invasive plants, wildfires and loss of open space.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s steep terrain and dense forests have helped hinder the proliferation of unauthorized trails and roads carved out by off-road vehicles, Burel said. But botanical areas, set aside by the forest to preserve rare and unique plants, are at risk, she said.

Illegal off-road vehicles have damaged plants in the Eight Dollar Mountain and Day’s Gulch botanical areas in the forest’s Illinois Valley Ranger District, said Pam Bode, district ranger.

"Botanical areas are relatively boggy, wet areas," Bode said. "They are very popular for use in the Illinois Valley and Grants Pass. They come here and drive through with large trucks and get muddy."

The forest won $27,000 federal funds last year to fence off parts of the Day’s Gulch, Eight Dollar Mountain and Oregon Mountain botanical areas and post signage along roads to prevent illegal off-road vehicles from crushing rare plants. The project is about 60 percent completed, Burel said.

Conservationists and recreation groups praised the plan but urged the Forest Service to include a funding mechanism for enforcing the designated areas.

The plan "doesn’t make sense if the Forest Service is not going to have enforcement to make sure designated routes are the ones that are actually used," said Joseph Vaile of Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center conservation group.

David Lexow, president of the Medford Motorcycle Riders Association, said designated areas improve the quality of off-road vehicle recreation by minimizing conflicts with hunters and hikers. 

He said he hopes the process will open more areas to off-road vehicles, including streamside reserves.

"It’s a no-brainer that we are doing what we can to support the public’s right to off-road recreation," Lexow said. "It’s only getting more popular."

Vaile said off-road vehicles should be restricted to existing roadbeds.

"It’s when off-road vehicles go on one-track trails and off roads that it conflicts with hikers, wildlife, water quality and rare plants," Vaile said.

WildlandsKlamath Siskiyou