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Know the West

Two weeks in the West


One toy "screams down the trails" and "tackles mud, rocks, and anything else nature throws its way." The other "dances over everything from muddy single track to boulder fields." With their grippy rubber treads and bomber construction, both may sound like fun to outdoorsy gearheads of all stripes. But the difference between the two underscores the fierce, slow-motion battle under way over how people play on the West's public lands. The first toy is a four-foot-wide offroad vehicle. The second is a trail running shoe.

By 2009, the Forest Service expects every national forest to have an updated plan to manage motorized recreation (11.5 million visits to national forests each year involve off-road vehicle use, and the number of off-road vehicles sold per year has tripled since 1995), close bandit trails, and reduce conflicts between the hikers, bikers, horseback riders and motorheads currently clogging the same paths. In many places, the public process has been fraught with bitter divisions, endless meetings and delays. Only 17 Western forests out of nearly 100 have completed maps showing where off-road vehicles are and aren't allowed to roam. The rest, from Utah's Dixie to California's Inyo, are still chugging away. The Bureau of Land Management is grinding through a similar effort.

"These are passionate people. They get loud," White River National Forest planner Wendy Haskins says, speaking of public meetings on the Colorado forest's developing plans.

And whatever balance land managers strike isn't likely to please everybody. "There's a limited amount of land out there, and everybody wants a piece of it," says Bitterroot National Forest planner Dan Ritter of Montana.

But regardless of what they decide, agencies may ultimately be hard-pressed to make folks observe new closures and rules. The Forest Service's 2009 budget proposes a $16.5 million cut in law enforcement. The BLM faces a similar plight, with about one agent available for every 1.2 million acres of land. The key will be collaborating with local governments and recreation groups on policing and educating users, says Haskins, provided they're willing.

Government landscaping

1. On the Bitterroot National Forest, where the most recent draft of the travel management plan proposed closing 364 miles of the forest's nearly 5,000 miles of roads to motorized use, passionate may be a bit of an understatement. In January in Darby, the first public meeting of more than 200 people turned into an angry confrontation. One man was overheard suggesting that a woman who advocated for road closures should have "a bullet in her head," spurring a police investigation and an unsuccessful push for prosecution. Forest staffers there have just finished combing through some 850 letters and thousands of e-mails in preparation for the next draft plan, expected out this fall. (USFS photo)

2. The Wallowa Whitman National Forest's preliminary proposal last year to close more than 4,200 miles of unmaintained roads and 1.3 million acres of open country to motorized travel drew praise from local environmental groups and a strong backlash from many local residents. Union County commissioners sent a letter to the local ranger district accusing the feds of bending to the will of "the environmental machine that seeks to dismantle our social and economic western culture." Since then, three counties (two of which went through extensive road surveys of their own) have submitted specific alternative plans to the forest recommending which routes should remain open and closed within their boundaries. The Hells Canyon Preservation Council has done the same. (USFS photo)

3. The lines aren't always quite so clear between motorized and non-motorized users in the White River National Forest. On Richmond Ridge outside of Aspen, for example, backcountry skiers who shuttle by snowmobile have long pushed for more access to a powder stash currently closed to all motorized use save the local skiing company's high-priced snowcat tours. Local forest staffers have suggested they might open the whole area to motorized use because of limited staff for enforcement. Meanwhile, a successful collaboration between local government, disparate recreation groups and the Forest Service at a similar area outside of Breckenridge might ease some management headaches there. (Pictured, backcountry skier on Richmond Ridge, Catherine Lutz.)

4. This month, the BLM will for the first time close some 55,000 acres and 89 miles of routes in the Sonoran Desert National Monument to offroaders. Staffers say the two-plus year closure will allow the agency to catch up on restoring routes and revegetating areas damaged by increasingly heavy offroad use, as well as finish its own travel management plan, due out next fall. (Pictured, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility work to restore ORV damage, courtesy PEER.)

5. When the BLM indefinitely closed 31,000 acres of the Clear Creek Management Area in May as part of a larger planning effort, it was over concerns about human, not environmental, health. The area, which has been a favorite of offroaders since the 1940s, is also home to a large natural deposit of asbestos, and a recent federal study suggests offroading kicks up dangerous amounts of the stuff. Over the next few years, says field manager Rick Cooper, the agency will evaluate whether or not any uses can be allowed, and if so, under what system. The decision has infuriated offroaders, who have threatened to sue, and stirred ambivalence even among enviros, who enjoy hiking and birdwatching in the area. (Pictured, a federal toxics team member in protective clothing, EPA.)