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  July/August 2001 Features:
Quicker, Cleaner, Cheaper, Safer
Growing Justice
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The Future of Nuclear
Muffling ORV Use
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The Planet
Park Service, Congress Set to Muffle ORV Use

By Jenny Coyle

ORV tracksSierra Club sides with agency in two court battles

Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida is a shining - or rather, muddy and rutted - example of how irresponsible off-road-vehicle use shreds a fragile ecosystem.

The preserve, a wide-open stretch of swamps and forests about the size of Rhode Island, provides some of the last habitat for the critically endangered Florida panther. And enough miles of ORV routes to circle the planet, about 22,000 miles, traverse it. The National Park Service has called it the best example of overuse in the park system.

Desert Tortoise

Tearing Up the Landscape: The desert tortoise is one of 21 species protected when the Bureau of Land Management shut down some off-road vehicle areas in California recently. Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve, above, would benefit from similar treatment.

The Park Service has attempted to fix the problem, and last year released a management plan that restricts ORVs to 400 miles of designated routes, limits annual permits and access points, imposes a 60-day seasonal closure and sets vehicle specifications to minimize noise.

Now ORV and hunting groups that object to the restrictions are suing the agency. The Sierra Club and other conservation groups have joined on the side of the Park Service as intervenors.

"This is one of the recent cases where the Park Service has done the right thing to protect the environment from irresponsible ORV use - whether it be all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles or Jet Skis - only to be met with lawsuits," said Karl Forsgaard of Mercer Island, Wash. Forsgaard chairs the ORV Subcommittee of the Sierra Club's Recreational Issues Committee.

In Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, Park Service efforts to phase out snowmobiles by the winter of 2003-2004 have met a similar fate. The International Snowmobile Manufacturers' Association sued the agency in December 2000 to overturn the ban. Again, the Sierra Club signed on as an intervenor on the side of the Park Service.

About 62,000 snowmobilers ride through Yellowstone each year, spewing exhaust and disturbing wildlife. President Bush has said he hopes "limited recreational use" of snowmobiles will be allowed in the two parks. Forsgaard and others are concerned the ban may be lifted in settlement talks.

Under the Clinton administration, the Park Service also imposed a regulation that calls for Jet Skis (also called personal watercraft) to be outlawed in all but 10 of the country's 379 national parks by September 2002. The two-stroke engines on these vehicles are loud and disruptive, and an Environmental Protection Agency study found that they discharge 25 to 30 percent of their fuel unburned into the water.

Yet in April, Interior Secretary Gale Norton rescinded bans at four national parks that had recently decided to restrict their use, ostensibly to review the approval process that was followed.

Forsgaard is heartened by Park Service's recent decisions, though frustrated by the court challenges.

"The agency's actions reflect increased public awareness of the damage caused by ORVs, and the change in presidential administrations is not going to make that public awareness go away," he said. "We're hopeful the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will follow the Park Service's example."

Some good news has recently come out of California, where in a landmark court settlement the BLM has agreed to shut down some popular ORV terrain and other sensitive areas on 11 million acres of the California Desert Conservation Area. The move will protect bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and 21 other species. ORV groups fought the ruling.

The Sierra Club is supporting three House bills that would help reduce the damage from ORV use.

The "Responsible Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement and Response Act" (H.R. 1382), by Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) would increase fines for violations and apply the funds to the affected location for enforcement, education and restoration efforts.

H.R. 702, the "Personal Watercraft Responsible Use Act of 2001," sponsored by Reps. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), sets minimum-age standards and requires safety training for Jet Ski operators, creates a 200-foot no-wake boundary on shorelines and increases enforcement.

And Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has sponsored H.R. 1465, the "National Park Snowmobile Restrictions Act of 2001," which restricts snowmobile use in national parks, with limited exceptions where the law requires.

Take Action: Ask your representative to support the three House bills aimed at protecting wild places from snowmobiles, Jet Skis and ORVs in general. Offer him or her a reminder of the destruction that has occurred at Big Cypress National Preserve, and request opposition to any efforts - probably in the form of riders to spending bills - to undermine protections.

More on ORVs

Photo of tortoise courtesy Bureau of Land Management; photo of tracks courtesy Karl Forsgaard.

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