For decades, off-road vehicle enthusiasts have been mostly free to roam U.S. federal forests and rangelands. Those freewheeling days could be numbered, though.
RENO, Nevada — For decades, off-road vehicle enthusiasts have been mostly free to roam U.S. federal forests and rangelands. Those freewheeling days could be numbered, though.
Two government agencies, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, are developing plans to restrict the vehicles to designated routes as part of an effort to curb environmental damage and ease conflict among users of public lands.
"The days of blazing new trails are coming to an end," said Leo Drumm, off-highway vehicle coordinator for the Nevada BLM. "There has to be some controls."
While efforts to address off-road travel are under way across the West, any changes probably would have the biggest impact on Nevada and its wide-open spaces -- including the 6.3-million-acre (2.6-million-hectare) Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the largest national forest outside Alaska.
The federal government controls 87 percent of the state's land, and the vast majority of the backcountry is unrestricted to off-roaders.
Although the Forest Service's national policy on off-roading awaits final action nearly a year after it was unveiled, individual national forests such as Humboldt-Toiyabe are being encouraged to address the issue because of soaring off-road vehicle use.
"We're all recognizing at the same time the need to work on this issue," said Bob Vaught, supervisor of Humboldt-Toiyabe. "There's widespread agreement that we need to do a better job of managing off-highway vehicle use."
Between 1972 and 2000, the number of off-road vehicle users increased from about 5 million to 36 million, causing conflicts with others such as horseback riders and the growing number of homeowners who live near national forests.
The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy group, said it wants to keep as many roads and trails open as possible.
"(Environmentalists) are spending millions of dollars to close public land to public uses," said Brian Hawthorne, the Idaho-based group's public lands director. "That's where the controversy is generated. What we want are managed off-highway trail systems and areas that are sustainable and that we can enjoy for generations to come."
Gerald Lent of the Nevada Hunters Association said most off-roaders are responsible and are being unfairly singled out.
"Out in the middle of the desert, what damage are you doing with an ATV?" Lent asked. "It doesn't hurt anything. There's so much land out there I don't know how they would harm it."
But federal land managers are taking a cue from Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth, who said unmanaged recreation is one of the four biggest threats to national forests. And conservationists are concerned that not enough roads will be closed to protect wildlife and habitat.
"We need to encourage them to act in a way that will result in real on-the-ground protection," said Jeremy Garncarz of the Wilderness Society in Denver. "We're losing wildlife habitat on a daily basis because of these problems."
Most hunters welcome the push to keep off-road vehicles to designated areas, said Stan Rauch, hunter outreach coordinator of the Washington-based National Trails and Waters Coalition, which seeks better management of the vehicles on public land.
Traditional sportsmen have accused those who go off road to hunt using all-terrain vehicles of disturbing their hunts and punching out more new roads in remote regions across the West.
"It's a good positive development for the land and users looking for a quality experience on public land," said Rauch, a big-game hunter from Victor, Montana.
Federal land managers said they will work with various groups to identify routes, trails and other areas suitable for off-road vehicles. Implementation will vary, but some districts are shooting for as early as 2007.
While federal land managers said it's premature to discuss road closures, they won't rule them out.
"We're growing up as a state and we can't handle the unrestricted cross-country travel like we did in the past," said Drumm of the Nevada BLM. "Every time you go out you find more new trails."
Source: Associated Press