Forest Service tries to crack down on rogue off-roaders, but lacks staff to enforce rules


Just before Labor Day, an angry swarm of off-highway vehicle riders buzzed around Plasse’s Resort. "They were mad," says Ken Stroth, a summer resident at the campground in California’s Sierra Nevada. "They were on their bikes, revving them up, spinning wheels and doing brodies."

The riders had come expecting to enjoy the Eldorado National Forest. Instead, they found that the Forest Service had closed 700 miles of the forest’s trails. Off-roaders had created most of the routes illegally, and a lawsuit from conservationists forced the forest to close them until it can study their environmental impacts.

National forests nationwide will begin a similar study process under a new rule announced on Nov. 2, which requires them to restrict vehicles — except for snowmobiles — to designated routes. Terrain will be closed unless it’s marked open on a travel plan map (HCN, 8/2/04: New rules coming down for off-roaders).

However, the new rule allows individual districts to incorporate illegally created routes — estimated to number in the tens of thousands of miles — into their permanent travel plans. And even if a district shuts down all such routes, enforcing the closures will prove difficult. Budget crunches have thinned agency presence in the field, even as the number of off-roaders skyrockets.

Gaps in enforcement

Use — and abuse — of national forests has soared in recent years, with an estimated 205 million visits in 2004.

Many of those visitors bring motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. Off-highway vehicle riders rose from about 5 million in 1972 to 51 million in 2004. And more than two-thirds occasionally stray from sanctioned routes, according to a study conducted for the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, a motorized recreation organization.

At the same time, the Forest Service has been hit by staffing reductions and budget crunches. In the Pacific Northwest Region, dramatic cuts in timber harvesting and revenue have reduced the number of staff by nearly half since 1990. Forests where biologists, loggers and survey crews once worked are now largely missing an agency presence.

The agency’s budget has remained fairly constant in recent years, but rising salaries mean that many positions remain vacant. The law enforcement arm has felt the lack acutely; officers have to deal with an increasing host of problems, including illegal shooting, dumping, arson and even huge marijuana gardens (HCN, 10/31/05: The Public Lands' Big Cash Crop).

"All (law enforcement officers) have hundreds of thousands of acres to patrol," says Ann Melle, the agency’s assistant director of enforcement in Washington, D.C. But some forests lack even a single law enforcement officer, she says. Others have only three or four.

A 1990s agency study showed that three forests in the Rocky Mountain’s southwestern zone would need a total of eight or nine officers to function adequately. Instead, the zone has four full-time officers and one half-time, says Harry Shiles, the patrol captain.

Shiles depends on "forest protection officers" such as rangers to make up the difference. "But, unfortunately, the FPOs aren’t productive (in pursuing violators)," Shiles says. "We have people that have the (law enforcement) credentials but don’t use them."

Rangers or desk drones?

It’s difficult to ask rangers to make time for enforcement when their time in the field is already pinched. According to a survey in the Rocky Mountain Region, agency employees spend 8 percent less time outside now than in 2000.

Last year, many business-management positions were centralized in Albuquerque, says Jim Maxwell, region spokesman. This means that employees are now responsible for tasks that support staff once did, including making travel arrangements and ordering uniforms and supplies. New regulations also require employees to fill out more reports.

"You don’t really notice it year to year, but if you look back 15 years, you say, ‘Man, there’s been a big change around here!’ " Maxwell says. "We need to try to figure out a way to deal with it, and get more boots on the ground."

But Dan Schroeder, chair of the Ogden, Utah, chapter of the Sierra Club, says simply putting more people on the ground won’t solve the off-highway vehicle problem. He describes one incident when he, the district ranger, and other agency staff found seven people on motorized vehicles behind a "trail closed" sign: "The Forest Service folks went up and talked to them, and then we just went on and left them; they didn’t write any tickets. And that’s how the Forest Service behaved with the Sierra Club watching!"

Ogden District Ranger Chip Sibbernsen says that because the riders were cooperative, the district folks chose not to ticket them. So far in 2005, the district has given nine tickets and 18 warnings to trespassing riders.

National forests could take up to four years to write new travel management plans that incorporate the new vehicle rules. In the meantime, some off-roaders are taking matters into their own hands. C.J. Stewart, director of Caring Trail Users near Los Angeles, encourages fellow off-roaders to stay on designated routes. "You may be violating your own privileges," she warns riders, "when you recreate irresponsibly."

The author is an HCN intern.