The Road Less Traveled 

Would the feds' off-road ban do any good?

No matter what the intent of the government's new proposal for all-terrain vehicles in the backcountry, the effect remains the same-and it's unconscionable, say many outspoken critics.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service's joint proposal for Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota restricts ATVs to trails and roads. With this plan, the agencies intend to prohibit ATVs from traveling cross-country on public lands and, in the process, hopefully keep them from spreading noxious weeds, causing conflicts between users, disrupting wildlife, eroding the land and creating their own trails.

It is precisely these user-created trails that have become the center of debate. By restricting ATVs to trails and roads, the proposal legitimizes user-created trails, because they already exist. But these trails, critics say, are illegal, and some of them should never have been allowed in the first place.

Two federal agencies have proposed banning ATVs from off-road riding on public land. Now the only problem is deciding where the roads are.
Photo by Mark Alan Wilson


"User-created trails tend to go through the most difficult terrain because that's where it's the most fun," says Bethanie Walder of the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads. "They tend to be damaging because they go through fragile areas. Someone on an ATV might want to drive straight up a hill, but that causes the most erosion. That's why most trails have switchbacks."

Critics like Walder want the agencies to restrict ATVs to "legal trails," the ones listed on travel maps, trail maps and site-specific plans after going through a public input process. That way, individual sites, like Lolo National Forest, can decide which user-created trails to add to its trail system, by soliciting comments from the public and preparing an environmental impact statement that ensures wildlife, vegetation, water and soil are not negatively affected by the trail. But as it stands now, the proposal sanctions all user-created trails immediately, and then allows each site to go through the environmental assessment process to close them-a process that could last more than a decade.

"They would be accepting the continued use until they could get around to doing a detailed analysis," says Greg Munther, a former Ninemile forest ranger. "That could take ten to 15 years. And the more use that takes place, the harder it is to close the trail.

"Being a land manager in the past, I know that you can only close so many trails before people get upset," Munther says. "Do you leave 98 percent of the trails open because politically you can only close two percent? That isn't the right way to manage."

One of the biggest problems with this joint-agency proposal is that the BLM and the Forest Service do not have the same land management practices. In particular, the Forest Service has a much better inventory of their roads and trails than the BLM.

"People are now discovering the differences between the agencies," says Bob Decker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. "We can't expect to get a meaningful policy between two agencies that are so different."

The joint proposal seems to be an offering to ATV riders: allowing them to travel on all BLM trails-whether or not they're on a map-since the agency hasn't completed an inventory. But environmentalists argue that trails not on a map are illegal, because they were created by users, not through a public input process. They add that this proposal forces the Forest Service to take a step backward, because every user-created trail will become legitimate until the agency goes through the public input process.

"The BLM needs to develop their system of roads and trails, because they just haven't done it," Munther says. "We hope it would take five years."

But then, that's five years that ATV riders will be deprived of riding the trails they've been on for the last five years. The Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association (MTVRA) supports the preliminary proposal, which they helped to negotiate, because it allows use on all currently existing trails.

"Since there are areas where there is not a good, accurate inventory of trails, they decided to go with the idea of keeping all existing trails open," says MTVRA president Bob Stevenson. "BLM doesn't have a good inventory of trail systems, and many forests in the three-state area are also in the same situation. That's the drawback of trying to limit ATVs to system trails."

The original proposal was more restrictive for ATV riders, and environmentalists wonder how this special interest group was able to negotiate a new proposal-a better one for the ATV riders. Other outdoor recreationists, meanwhile, can't understand why ATV users need more trails than those already listed on the trail maps. According to a federal study, the majority of people using trails on federal land are hikers and horseback riders. Only two percent are ATV riders.

"The challenge is to get the sleeping majority to wake up," says John Gatchel of the Montana Wilderness Association. "If they don't, they are going to lose their quiet, wild places."

The agencies are taking comments from the public on the proposal on Tuesday, March 2, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Ruby's on Reserve Street in Missoula.

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