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OHV use curtailed by new USFS policy decisions

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By Courtney Lowery
The Associated Press, Helena, Montana

They came on four wheels and on two, hunting or just tooling around. They came to ride on roads and trails through vast swaths of public land in the West. And, unfortunately, some of them rode anywhere they wanted.

The explosive popularity of "off-highway" vehicles - everything from four-wheelers to trail bikes and souped-up jeeps – has exploded over the past 20 years and left many federal land managers scrambling to put new rules in place to manage them and protect natural resources.

That task is proving more difficult than anyone expected. Officials have found themselves trying to balance the rights of those who want to visit public lands by motor vehicle with those who say it's gotten out of hand.

"They're at total opposite ends of the spectrum," said Steve Christiansen, environmental coordinator for the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. "Right now, it looks like there's no way to find a solution that will make the majority happy."

The Gallatin is one of nine forests in the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Region under orders to update management plans to help reign in motor-vehicle use.

In a 2001 decision, Dale Bosworth, at the time head of the Northern Region, put strict limits on motor-vehicle use in the forests, ordering vehicles to stick to designated roads and trails. He also ordered forest supervisors in the region to review all of their existing trails and roads and determine which ones should be closed and which should be open.

Bosworth, now chief of the U.S. Forest Service, noted at the time that it was clear the general policy of "open unless closed' had led to thousands of miles of unauthorized roads, damaged natural resources and growing conflicts among users.

Forest supervisors in the region are still struggling to meet Bosworth's orders, and are running into even more conflicts as they try to decide which roads and trails to close. The Lewis and Clark forest estimated last spring that more than 1,000 unplanned trails have been carved on the forest's 1.8 million acres.

Forests across the West often are crisscrossed with old logging and mining roads and two-track trails, a lot of them considered part of a forest's official "trail system. " Others were cut by horse packers or even homesteaders and existed for decades, although never officially recognized as designated routes.

Critics say many more, however, were carved by off-road enthusiasts without permission.

And once one ATV or jeep made a path, others followed, often not even aware the trail was never supposed to be there.

"Any responsible private landowner wouldn't say, 'sure, drive wherever you want,' so why should a land manager? Why is this happening?" said John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. "There is this whole misplaced discussion of access."

When Bosworth became Forest Service chief, he said unregulated recreation, specifically off highway vehicle use, or "OHV" use, was a major threat to national forests.

In the Forest Service's Southwest region, which includes five forests in Arizona and New Mexico, supervisors also are trying to develop new rules for managing OHVs. A draft decision is expected in January, and it is almost certain to include off-road restrictions similar to those in Montana and the Dakotas, officials say.

OHV use "grew so fast that it caught us off guard," said Raquel Poturalski, public affairs officer on the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Ariz.


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