Image: Off-road vehicle in national forest
This trail in the Helena National Forest near Helena, Mont., is designated for off-road vehicles but many others are not.
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updated 12/5/2003 3:05:09 PM ET 2003-12-05T20:05:09

They came on four wheels and on two, hunting or just tooling around. They came to ride on roads and trails through vast swaths of public land in the West. And, unfortunately, some of them rode anywhere they wanted. The explosive popularity of “off-highway” vehicles — everything from four-wheelers to trail-bikes and souped-up jeeps — has left federal land managers scrambling to put new rules in place to protect natural resources.

That task is proving more difficult than anyone expected. Officials have found themselves trying to balance the rights of those who want to visit public lands by motor vehicle with those who say it’s gotten out of hand.

“They’re at total opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Steve Christiansen, environmental coordinator for the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. “Right now, it looks like there’s no way to find a solution that will make the majority happy.”

The Gallatin is one of nine forests in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region under orders to update management plans to help rein in motor-vehicle use.

In a 2001 decision, Dale Bosworth, at the time head of the Northern Region, put strict limits on motor-vehicle use in the forests, ordering vehicles to stick to designated roads and trails. He also ordered forest supervisors in the region, covering Montana, North Dakota and parts of South Dakota, to review all of their existing trails and roads and determine which ones — on about 10 million acres in all — should be closed and which should be open.

‘GOTTEN MORE COMPLICATED’

Bosworth, now chief of the U.S. Forest Service, noted at the time that it was clear the general policy of “open unless closed” had led to thousands of miles of unauthorized roads, damaged natural resources and growing conflicts among users.

Forest supervisors in the region are still struggling to meet Bosworth’s orders, and are running into even more conflicts as they try to decide which roads and trails to close.

“It’s just gotten more complicated, more controversial,” said Dick Schweke, travel planner for Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest. “We seem to bog down with public controversy.”

The Lewis and Clark forest estimated last spring that more than 1,000 unplanned trails have been carved on the forest’s 1.8 million acres.

Mike Jongeling, owner of Mike’s Off-Road in Bozeman, Mont., has been an off-road enthusiast most of his life. Many of the trails he and his family have ridden on in national forest land outside of Bozeman have been closed in recent years, often to his dismay.

Attempts to negotiate ways to keep some of the trails open to motor vehicles have not worked, he said.

“We try to even adopt trails,” he said. “But we’re just told ‘no,’ and they’re closed.”

WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE?

Critics say the problem is that many of the trails Jongeling and others use were never meant to be there.

Forests across the West often are crisscrossed with old logging and mining roads and two-track trails, a lot of them considered part of a forest’s official “trail system.” Others were cut by horse packers or even homesteaders and existed for decades, although never officially recognized as designated routes.

Critics say many more, however, were carved out by off-road enthusiasts without permission. And once one ATV or jeep made a path, others followed, often not even aware the trail was never supposed to be there.

“Any responsible private landowner wouldn’t say, ‘Sure, drive wherever you want,’ so why should a land manager? Why is this happening?” said John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. “There is this whole misplaced discussion of access.”

“Legally, (off-road enthusiasts) have been pioneering,” Schweke said. “And that’s what we don’t want.”

When Bosworth became Forest Service chief, he said unregulated recreation, specifically off-highway vehicle use or “OHV” use, was as a major threat to national forests.

TRYING TO CATCH UP

In the Forest Service’s Southwest Region, which includes five forests in Arizona and New Mexico, supervisors also are trying to develop new rules for managing OHVs. A draft decision is expected in January, and it is almost certain to include off-road restrictions similar to those in Montana and the Dakotas, officials say.

OHV use “grew so fast that it caught us off guard,” said Raquel Poturalski, public affairs officer on the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Ariz.

From 1995 to 2000, the sales of off-road vehicles in Arizona alone grew nearly 300 percent, Poturalski said.

In 1983, the Forest Service estimated there were about 19.4 million OHVs in the country. By 2000, that number had grown to 35.9 million.

But it hasn’t just been the explosive growth in the popularity of the machines that has led to problems. Land managers, off-road enthusiasts and conservationists agree the problem has been made worse by lax regulations and little enforcement.

Before Bosworth’s 2001 decision, forest managers tried regulate OHVs under two presidential orders from the 1970s. The orders said it was illegal to ride in a manner that would cause “resource damage.”

“The federal law has always said you can’t ride somewhere that will do resource damage. But the issue always was, and is, what is resource damage?” said Dave Payne, recreation manager for the Helena National Forest. “Is it the first person who drives across some land and makes a little rut or is it the second, or the third? Who really knows?”

Land managers simply haven’t had the time or manpower to patrol the millions of acres.

Groups such as the national nonprofit Tread Lightly! encourage responsible vehicle use on public lands and often are the ones patrolling and even rebuilding damaged trails.

“We police abusers because (their activity) just makes us look bad,” Jongeling said.

TALE OF TWO TRAILS

In the Helena National Forest, Payne shows a trail specifically built for motorized use. It is posted with signs and is engineered to leave little impact on the land, with strategically placed water ditches.

But just a short distance away, he points to another trail, created by off-road users, that scales an adjacent hillside — straight up — for at least ¾ of a mile.

“That is what we don’t want,” he said.

Many off-road enthusiast groups agree some limits are needed, but they fear too many trails will be closed in the process.

“We don’t want to see proliferation or really any new routes created. We are just concerned that the trend is to pretty severely restrict access,” said Bill Dart, of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which supports multiple use on public lands.

Kristen Brengel of the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C., said most conservation groups are not pushing for a complete ban.

“Land managers have realized that the era of going where you want is coming to an end and off-road vehicles should stay on designated routes,” she said. “Often times, you hear that we are promoting an all-out ban. We’re not completely unreasonable.”

Mary Wagner, an associate director for the U.S. Forest Service’s recreation, wilderness and heritage resource staff in Washington, D.C., said Bosworth’s office has created two separate teams to address the issue.

The first team is supposed to set up a nationwide policy on OHV use for forests to follow. The second team is to give each of the forests the tools needed to do the hard part — designating which roads to close and which to keep open.

“The policy is maybe the easy part,” Wagner said. “It’s the route designation that is a challenge.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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