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The Planet
Forest Service to Examine Off-Road Vehicle Rules

By Tom Valtin

U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has identified unmanaged recreation, particularly off-road vehicle use, as one of the four great threats to national forests. A draft rule governing the use of dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and other off-road vehicles on all national forests and national grasslands could be out for public comment by June or early summer.

In April, 290 conservation, recreation, religious, and other groups from 39 states wrote to Bosworth pressing the agency to propose strong new rules to counter the negative impacts caused by off-road vehicle use. "The message from nearly 300 groups representing millions of Americans is clear—seize this opportunity and advance real reform that will protect these national treasures for everyone," says Scott Kovarovics, director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition.

Kovarovics is encouraged by the Forest Service effort, but cautions that the agency could "buckle under pressure from the well-organized off-road-vehicle industry." The Sierra Club and the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition have been pressing the Forest Service for years to address this rapidly growing problem.

In March, 75 biologists, geologists, ecologists, and other scientists representing more than 25 universities nationwide sent a letter to Bosworth urging him to ensure that new rules for off-road vehicle use are based on sound science and focus first and foremost on protecting natural resources. "Off-road vehicles have invaded every ecosystem in the United States, from coastal sand dunes to alpine meadows," said scientist spokesman Dr. Howard Wilshire, board chairman for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "In all these places, the life-supporting elements—soil, air, water—are becoming so damaged that they are unlikely to be restored to a healthy condition in a lifetime; some soils may not be restored for millennia."

The failure to effectively manage off-road vehicle use is causing serious problems across national forests. For example:

Renegade ATV and dirt-bike tracks spread out like spider webs across many forests. In April 2003, Bosworth described the problem as follows: "For example, the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana has more than 1,000 unplanned roads and trails reaching for almost 650 miles. That’s pretty typical for a lot of national forests, and it’s only going to get worse."

Dirt bikes and ATVs are causing erosion, clogging streams with sediment and damaging critical wetlands and riparian areas. Cross-country travel is splintering valuable wildlife habitat, with particularly harmful impacts on large mammals, including elk and bear.

Uncontrolled off-road vehicle use is also adversely affecting other users of national forests, including ranchers, outfitters and guides, hikers, cross-country skiers, and hunters and anglers.

The new rules are likely to prohibit cross-country motorized travel except under limited circumstances and restrict dirt bikes and ATVs to designated roads and off-road vehicle routes. The Sierra Club supports these policy changes but is urging the Forest Service to take additional steps to ensure significant protection for public land, wildlife, and other types of recreation. "The Forest Service must not use this process to simply give the official stamp of approval to every renegade dirt bike or ATV track that currently exists on the ground," cautions Club wilderness activist Vicky Hoover.

"To protect the land and wildlife, these machines must stay on designated routes," says Karl Forsgaard, the Club’s recreation issues chair. "The Forest Service should set strong deadlines for the route designation process. Punting the timing issue to ‘local discretion’ is counterproductive, because the local officers will get pressure, even threats, from ORV renegades trying to delay the process while they continue to ride off-trail."

By setting a firm deadline, the Forest Service will protect and empower its own employees to get the routes designated on time. A deadline also means that undesignated routes are no longer open to these machines, which gives ORV users incentive to cooperate with the process.

Take Action

Write to your local forest supervisor, or contact the Forest Service at Thank the Forest Service for its intention to prohibit most ORV cross-country travel in national forests and limit dirt bikes and ATVs to designated routes. In order to accomplish real reform the agency should:

• Establish a two-year time frame in which roads and routes must be designated for off-road vehicle use. Failure to do so will only perpetuate the problem.

• Limit off-road vehicle use to a manageable system of roads and specifically designed off-road vehicle routes marked as open. In order to establish such a system, they must not consider every track that may already exist, but should start with a "blank map" and identify a manageable and affordable route system for off-road vehicles. User-created routes should not be part of the official designated systems unless they are subject to site-specific study and public participation under National Environmental Protection Act.

• Require decisions about which routes are appropriate for off-road vehicles to be made based on sound science, site-specific analysis and balanced public participation. In addition, routes should be allowed only when and where funding is available for enforcement, monitoring, and mitigation of damage.

• Enforce sanctions against subsequent user-created illegal routes in order to guard against legitimizing such trespass.

• Solicit input from wildlife personnel, to assure route designation in not only a recreation-driven process.

If possible, give some specific examples from your nearby national forest, of what undesirable results would ensue if the agency simply gave the stamp of approval to every track on the ground.

For more information, visit:, or contact: Karl Forsgaard,, or Maribeth Oakes, Director, Public Lands Team, Sierra Club, at

Adapted from a story by Scott Kovarovics.

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