Clock Ticking for Proposed Off Road Vehicle Strategy

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 28, 2000 (ENS) - Environmentalists and motorized recreation advocates are racing against the clock to score points with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The agency is taking public comments on its newly proposed national off highway vehicle strategy through next Monday.

ORV damage

This BLM land in Utah has been damaged by irresponsible off-road vehicle use. The BLM's draft strategy seeks to curtail these types of practices, but environmental groups say the proposal does not go nearly far enough. (Photo courtesy of the BLM)

The proposed off highway vehicle (OHV) strategy, which was released in draft form earlier this month, is intended to promote and codify "environmentally sound" policies and practices for OHV use on BLM managed lands.

But many environmental groups are not happy with the proposal, saying that it fails to protect some of the nation's wildest remote deserts, canyons and range lands from damage caused by dirt bikes, all terrain vehicles and other off road vehicles.

"The [proposed strategy] is a huge disappointment," said Bethanie Walder, executive director of Wildlands CPR, an environmental advocacy group. "It fails to offer any substantive protection to any places, even Wilderness Study Areas. Worse still, it actually promotes more use and damage by off road vehicles."

ORV

A truck makes its way along a closed backcountry road. Operated irresponsibly, off-road vehicles can cause tremendous environmental damage. (Photo courtesy of the USFS)
The draft strategy, in fact, makes it clear that OHV use is a "legitimate activity" on public lands, when done in a manner consistent with BLM policies and federal land management laws. The 64 page strategy document notes that under federal law, the BLM is required to manage public lands in a way that accommodates multiple uses while protecting public land resources.

"This draft strategy is aimed at recognizing the interests of OHV users while protecting environmentally sensitive areas on the public lands," said Henri Bisson, the BLM's assistant director for renewable resources and planning.

The draft strategy has generated guarded optimism among some members of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy group. The group, which vehemently decried the Clinton administration's efforts to "lock up" the nation's public lands, says it is encouraged that draft strategy seems to "elevate the importance" of OHV recreation within the BLM.

Adena Cook, the group's public lands director, noted that the draft strategy calls for the establishment of a national OHV advisory board to be staffed by officials of the BLM and other federal land management agencies. The strategy also calls for the creation of an OHV "Strategy Action Team" that will work to improve the new initiative after it is implemented, Cook added.

The Blue Ribbon Coalition has also applauded a number of other initiatives embodied in the BLM's draft OHV strategy, including:

"In general, the draft strategy lays the groundwork for positive OHV management," declared Cook.

Environmental groups see things differently. Jerry Greenberg, director of the Wilderness Society's off road vehicle campaign, said the strategy as currently drafted will fail to protect more than 90 percent of the BLM's 264 million acres from the devastation and destruction caused by off highway vehicles.

"Dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles are essentially out of control on our public lands and waters," Greenberg said. "It is particularly disturbing that these vehicles tear up streams, pollute the water, cause severe soil erosion and destroy wildlife habitat in backcountry wilderness areas that are supposed to be protected."

road

A jeep navigates a narrow road on public lands. (Photo courtesy of the USFS)
In a report released earlier this month, the Wilderness Society and a host of other environmental groups lambasted the BLM for failing to put forth an OHV strategy that protects Wilderness Study Areas - large undeveloped tracts of land that provide important habitat for wildlife and solitude for people on foot.

"There ought to be some places free of the noise, pollution and damage caused by dirt bikes and other off road vehicles," said Mike Medberry of American Lands.

Medberry said that in his home state of Idaho, off highway vehicles routinely go "ripping through" the Big and Little Jack's Creek Wilderness Study Areas in the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands, an area that the Clinton administration considered designating as a national monument.

The BLM has previously used its authority to protect Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) from damage caused by off road vehicles.

Earlier this year, the BLM closed off portions of seven WSAs in the southern Utah region to off road vehicle use. In so doing, the agency declared that "An emergency closure order is necessary due to ORV caused damage to soils, vegetation and other resources which is impairing wilderness values over extensive portions of the affected WSAs."

The report released by the environmental groups concluded that to prevent further damage, the BLM should immediately prohibit ORV access to all Wilderness Study Areas, and all other areas the BLM has inventoried and determined to possess wilderness characteristics. The report also calls on the BLM to protect additional wilderness quality lands as they are identified, in order to ensure that those areas are also protected from ORV damage.

dunes

The Algodones Dunes in southern California, shown here blanketed by primroses, are the only U.S. home of the Peirson's milkvetch. Earlier this year, the BLM agreed to ban ORVs from about 48,000 acres of the 150,000 acre dune ecosystem to protect the plants. About 118,000 acres, or 77 percent of the Dunes, was being managed by BLM exclusively for intensive ORV use. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity)
Finally, the environmental groups' report recommends that the BLM allocate sufficient funds to monitor and enforce measures taken to protect WSAs and other wilderness quality land from ORV damage.

BLM officials expect to pore over thousands of last minute public comments before releasing the finalized version of the OHV strategy on January 19 - one day before President elect George W. Bush is sworn into office.

As of Thursday afternoon, Bush had not yet announced his nominee for Secretary of the Interior, who will wield a great deal of power in implementing any new regulations pertaining to motorized vehicle access to BLM lands. But the reported front runner for the post, Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, has worked to roll back environmentally based public lands restrictions for off highway vehicles.

Bush has indicated that he may name an Interior Secretary nominee by the end of the week.

For more information about the BLM's draft OHV management strategy or to comment on it, log on to: http://www.blm.gov/ohv/index.htm.