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ATV rules on Mount Hood challenged

Forrest managers are closing trails to motorized recreation even as the popularity of all-terrain vehicles is growing
Saturday, September 11, 2004

Motorcyclists, snowmobilers and others who ride on backcountry trails and roads within the Mount Hood National Forest complain that federal land managers are squeezing out motorized recreation -- perhaps illegally.

The Forest Service says it is following the law, but land managers also acknowledge the agency has stepped up enforcement and posted signs on trails that should have been closed to motorized vehicles long ago.

The charges come as the U.S. Forest Service evaluates its policies governing motorized recreation and as the sport expands sharply in Oregon and nationwide.

Of the estimated 4 million visitors to the Mount Hood National Forest each year, about 1 percent engage in backcountry motorized sports. But state records indicate the number of dirt bikes, four-wheelers, dune buggies, snowmobiles and other machines commonly referred to as all-terrain vehicles -- or ATVs -- has grown by nearly 87 percent in Oregon in the past decade. The number of snowmobiles registered in Oregon is up 56 percent since 1993.

Yet, as the number of ATVs and drivers has grown, so have restrictions put on them.

"Some private forest lands have closed, driving more people to public areas and generating more use issues on public lands," said Rocky Houston, ATV program coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

The Forest Service is required to solicit public input before closing an established trail. Forest managers have emergency powers to close a trail when they fear environmental harm.

Motorcycle and snowmobile clubs routinely contact forest managers when planning a group event or a trail grooming.

"There are some forest managers that are easier to work with than others," said Joni Mogstad of the Oregon State Snowmobile Association.

The breaking point for Tom Niemela came this summer when he organized an annual motorcycle tour through the Mount Hood National Forest during the second weekend in July. Niemela, who is a leader with the Oregon Motorcycle Riders Association, said he has organized Mount Hood tours for a decade.

This year, he said, "There were considerably more trails closed to us."

For example, Trail 450, a popular route located on the east side of the mountain near Tygh Valley that has been used by motorized recreationists, had a sign that warned "no motorized vehicles," Niemela said.

In its first push for Oregon interests, the Blue Ribbon Coalition, representing about 600,000 motorized recreationists nationwide, has challenged Mount Hood forest managers to justify the closure of Trail 450 and other trails.

"These are historically multiple-use trails," said Don Amador, the Blue Ribbon Coalition's Western representative. "I think some of the roads and trails on Mount Hood have been closed without due process, and we just want to see that addressed."

But Malcolm Hamilton, recreation program manager for the Mount Hood National Forest, said Trail 450 runs through environmentally sensitive meadows and wet areas. Under terms delineated in the Mount Hood National Forest's management plan, the trail should have been closed to motorized vehicles, Hamilton said.

Trail 450 and others within the forest may never have been posted correctly, he said. "So, now we're doing that," he said.

Earlier this year, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth listed "unmanaged recreation" among a list of "four threats" facing the nation's forests and grasslands. In July, the Forest Service proposed new rules prohibiting off-highway vehicles, such as dirt bikes, from being used off designated routes.

Within the Mount Hood Forest District, off-road motorized recreation has the potential to disrupt wildlife areas, threaten historic and prehistoric sites, spread invasive weeds, and create rutting and soil erosion.

"We have instances where new trails have encroached into (protected) wilderness areas, particularly the Salmon-Huckleberry," Hamilton said.

Yet the presumption has been that trails within the Mount Hood National Forest are open to motorized sport unless they are marked "closed." The local forest management plan also permitted cross country travel -- meaning off trails.

In the next year, Hamilton said, Mount Hood Forest managers are looking at designating new off-road motorized routes, mostly on the east side of the mountain. At the same time, forest managers will make it clear that roads and trails are closed to motorized sport unless specifically designated "open."

"It's a long-established policy of the Forest Service that (off-road vehicle) use is a legitimate use of the national forest system lands," Hamilton said. "What we're trying to do is manage appropriate use."

Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; [email protected]
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