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House panel told public lands overrun by ORVs

Published: Sunday, March 16 2008 12:15 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Witness after witness told a House panel Thursday that off-road vehicle use needs better management.

With shrinking budgets for enforcement officers on public lands, witnesses complained that public lands are becoming "Disneyland rides" for ORVs.

Administration officials explained how they attempt to balance recreational use of all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and other devices on trails while, at the same time, preserving natural resources. But environmentalists, former rangers and other witnesses claimed their use is out of control and ruining otherwise protected areas, endangering children and creating noise and air pollution.

"Our public lands are in serious trouble," said Jack Gregory, a retired U.S. Forest Service agent who testified on behalf of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Irresponsible off-roading has become such a menace that it is now the single greatest threat to American landscapes."

Gregory used the 300 arrests and 37 injuries at a gathering of 1,000 ORV users at the Little Sahara Recreation Area in Utah last year to illustrate how bad things are getting.

"There is, unfortunately, a 'don't give a damn' attitude among a high percentage of off-roaders that result in resource damage, unnecessary accidents and other bad side effects," Gregory said at a House Natural Resources Committee National Parks, Forest and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing Thursday.

He said designated route enforcement would not work without enough officers in the park and the funding needed to employ them.

Henri Bisson, Bureau of Land Management deputy director, said the bureau "strives to preserve and protect resources for use and enjoyment of future generations while meeting the needs of motorized recreational access today."

"The combined effect of population increase in the West, unauthorized user-created roads, explosive growth in the use of (off-highway vehicles), advances in motorized technology, and intense industry marketing have generated increased social conflicts and resources impacts on public lands," Bisson said in his written testimony. "The BLM faces many challenges — protecting resources, minimizing user conflicts, safeguarding visitor safety and providing reasonable and appropriate access."

Russ Ehnes, executive director of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, which supports and promotes responsible off-road vehicle use, pointed to the Paiute ATV trail in Utah as an example of how active management of off-highway vehicle recreation works.

"The key to the success of these is active management," Ehnes said. "Well-managed systems are not only environmentally sustainable they also provide more fun for the riders and increased economic and social benefits to the surrounding communities."

Ehnes acknowledged that agencies' budgets are "extremely tight" so it will be up to an increased number of volunteers to work on proper OHV use. But in order to bring more help from the administration, Ehnes said OHV users are willing to pay users fees to help support the areas they use.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is the top Republican on the subcommittee, said that it is clear the administration needs to work with the riders and those who use the land.

"Problems always exist, but overall (off-highway vehicle) users are the first to offer solutions," Bishop said.

Bishop also said there is no excuse for riders who cross into private property that borders BLM land. Victoria Fuller of Joshua Tree, Calif., discussed how riders cross onto her property all the time, and her neighbors have been threatened by them.

"The 'checkerboard' pattern of private, public and BLM lands can create misunderstandings and ambiguities in the interpretation of the law," Fuller said.

Bishop said swapping public land for private land to create more consistent areas might help solve this problem.

"The abuse of private property is unacceptable," Bishop said.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com

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