Forest Service ranger Kevin Slagle struggles to keep his balance as he slides down a crudely cut trail in the Mount Hood National Forest. Not only is the rocky dirt path treacherous, Slagle says, it is eroding the land and hurting native trout and other species of animals.
MOUNT HOOD NATIONAL FOREST, Ore. Forest Service ranger Kevin Slagle struggles to keep his balance as he slides down a crudely cut trail in the Mount Hood National Forest.
Not only is the rocky dirt path treacherous, Slagle says, it is eroding the land and hurting native trout and other species of animals.
It's also against the law.
The pathway, in the Gibson Prairie area of the forest's northeast section, is one of a growing number of illegal trails scarring public lands throughout the West.
Slagle, recreation manager for the Hood River, Ore., ranger district, said the trail is the result of "a new pioneer mentality." Those who cut it -- most likely dirt bikers looking for a new thrill -- "feel they have the right to do it," he said. "Some of them think they are providing a public service."
Officials sharply disagree.
Frustrated by the sprawl of illegal trails, the Forest Service announced last week that all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles would be allowed only on designated roads and trails in all 155 national forests and 20 grasslands.
The agency already has issued a two-year ban for all off-road use of dirt bikes or other motorized vehicles in the Gibson Prairie area, where officials estimate at least 30 miles of illegal trails have been carved since last year.
"It's been an organized effort," Slagle said. "Somebody has gone in there and mapped out a trail system ... and cut it from the inside out."
Similar illegal trails have sprouted in public forests nationwide.
The Forest Service plan, years in the making, is intended to curb environmental damage caused by off-roaders while allowing legitimate use of motor vehicles. As part of the plan, some "renegade routes" that were originally cut illegally but are now heavily traveled could be designated for legal use.
Jim Furnish, a former deputy Forest Service chief who is now an environmental consultant, called the new rules inadequate. "What's lacking is the assurance of tough enforcement and evidence of backbone needed to bring this runaway problem under control," he said.
"Rather than start the name-calling and hyperbole, we're hoping those interest groups will work with us, so we can come up with good travel-management plans that are appropriate" in all 193 million acres of federal land overseen by the Forest Service, said agency spokesman Dan Jiron.
The new plan, which could take up to four years to complete, comes as use of off-road vehicles soars to an estimated 36 million riders, causing conflicts with other users such as hikers, horseback riders and the growing number of home owners who live near national forests.
The Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that supports motorized recreation, said most off-roaders are responsible. The group wants to ensure that most trails now used by ATVs remain accessible to riders.
"We're committed to working with the agency, but we certainly are not going to put up with trail closures without due process," said Don Amador, the group's Western representative.
Unmanaged recreation is not just a user problem, but an agency problem, Amador said -- an assessment shared by many environmental groups.
Jason Kiely, director of the Montana-based Natural Trails and Water Coalition, said the real test lies in enforcement. Some 270,000 miles of roads and routes are legally available to off-road vehicles -- nearly six times the length of the interstate highway system, he said.
Meanwhile, at least 60,000 miles of unauthorized routes zigzag through public forests.
"Until the Forest Service commits real resources to combating uncontrolled off-road vehicle use and effectively implementing the regulations, our forests -- and the quiet, natural experiences they provide -- will continue to be put at risk," said Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society.
Glen Sachet, a spokesman for the Mount Hood National Forest, agreed that enforcement is a problem, but he said budget cuts and an ongoing decline in timber sales have left the Forest Service with fewer resources. Mount Hood has more than 3,400 miles of roads and 1,000 miles of trails -- and a staff that has been cut in half since the early 1990s.
"I would say the need is greater than the resources we have, and we will fully utilize all the human and monetary resources we have," Sachet said.
Source: Associated Press