As the Forest Service works on updating travel plans throughout the state, conservationists are urging the agency to do more to crack down on illegal off-roading, like this guy photographed in the Great Burn proposed wilderness.
Shortly after becoming the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 2001, Dale Bosworth outlined what he saw as the four greatest threats facing the nation’s forests and grasslands in the 21st century. Under Bosworth’s direction the agency set about tackling unmanaged recreation, fire and fuels, loss of open space and invasive species.
As part of the solution to the unmanaged recreation piece, Bosworth mandated that the agency complete travel plans by 2010 identifying areas where motorized vehicles can and cannot travel. Almost two dozen plans covering distinct geographical areas are in preparation throughout the state.
But a run-in between area hikers and illegal off-road vehicle (ORV) riders raises serious questions about the agency’s ability to control ORV use on public lands, and some area conservationists aren’t convinced the agency has gone far enough to address those problems.
In Aug. 2006, an off-road motorcyclist in the Great Burn proposed wilderness on the Clearwater National Forest attacked Bob Clark, a conservation organizer with the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club. Clark was leading a group of backpackers on three-day trek along the Idaho/Montana boarder when his group encountered three motorcyclists riding high-tech and highly specialized “trail bikes” in an area closed to motorized use. Clark took out his camera to document the illegal activity when Timothy D. Turner of Stevensville promptly started up his machine and ran Clark down.
Clark wasn’t seriously injured, but after a yearlong investigation by the Forest Service, Idaho prosecutors charged Turner with felony aggravated assault, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines. However, Turner agreed to a plea bargain this fall that reduced the felony charges to misdemeanor disturbing the peace. Clark says he was infuriated when he received a letter from an Idaho prosecutor last month informing him that Turner had been sentenced. The punishment for attacking a group of hikers in the Great Burn: a $77.50 fine plus $72.50 in court costs for a whopping total of $150.
“I put my trust in faith in the system and I feel like the system completely failed me,” Clark says.
Jason Kiely, communications coordinator for WildlandsCPR, a Missoula-based group that advocates for stiff penalties for illegal off-roading, says authorities missed a golden opportunity to make an example of offenders like Turner and his two cohorts. It’s rare to catch illegal off-roading on public lands, says Kiely, and when the agency goes to such great length to catch the offenders, the judicial system needs to do its part by punishing them.
“Whatever deterrent factor there is, it’s lost when a case like this basically goes unpunished,” Kiely says. “These guys know how to game the system. This case sends a message to the rest of the ORV community that a $150 fine is just part of doing business.”
Pat Finnegan, the Forest Service special agent who led the investigation, says he is disappointed with the final outcome as well.
“I don’t work any case and then like seeing them pleaded down to a minor infraction,” Finnegan says. “Unfortunately once I’m done investigating it, the prosecution is out of my hands.”
Clark and Kiely say they wish federal—instead of state—prosecutors had pursued the case. But Finnegan says federal prosecutors are already overburdened with serious felony cases, and there aren’t enough attorneys to pursue them all.
Clark says that’s why he doesn’t want to see the Forest Service get caught in a trap of adopting long-term travel policies and regulations that have no teeth and inadequate enforcement. As firefighting costs continue to consume huge chunks of the agency’s overall budget, conservationists worry that fewer resources will go to law enforcement, inviting more conflicts between ORVs and hikers. On top of that, Clark’s concerned the agency hasn’t accounted for technological improvements that enable ORVs to access remote areas once impossible to reach.
“These trial bikes are the rock crawlers of the motorbike world. They literally climb up walls and over trees,” Clark says. “Are the Forest Service travel planners even aware of these machines, and if so, are they taking the technological capabilities of these bikes into account?”
Clark and Kiely doubt it.
Rick Deniger is president of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association (MTVRA), a statewide ORV umbrella organization with over 2,000 members. He says MTVRA views Turner’s behavior completely unacceptable.
“Nobody condones any type of violence or anything but respectable multiple use,” Deniger says. “There’s a 3 or 5-percent fringe in any user group—whether you’re talking about mountain bikers, motorized recreation, hunting, or fishing—that make the news consistently. Nobody likes it. They’re painting the rest of the users with a pretty wide brush when they do that stuff. That’s not what we condone in the slightest.”
Deniger, who also works as an off-highway vehicle ranger for the Forest Service, declined to comment on Turner’s punishment, but he says concentrating motorized users in smaller areas contributes to conflicts between users.
Officials with the Forest Service Northern Region did not return repeated requests for comment, but Finnegan says travel management on forest service lands should improve considerably as the agency completes its planning and publishes updated maps.
“A lot more responsibility will be placed on the operator to know where they are and whether or not a trail or road is open. I think we’ll see most areas closed to all cross country travel and only designated routes will be open to motorized use,” Finnegan says. “All that responsibility will be placed on the operator. Whether there’s a sign up or not they’ll be expected to know where it’s legal to ride.”
But Clark and Kiely are worried that inadequate enforcement combined with an apparent unwillingness by prosecutors to pursue violations when agents like Finnegan catch renegade riders, will send the wrong message to motorized users.
“When they’re going through the travel planning process, this issue should be front and center,” Clark says.