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From: California State Parks and California Off-Road Adventures

Anatomy of a Closure; Route Inventories and Trail Designation Key to Keeping Trails Open

It was the early 1990s and the High Desert Protection Plan prepared for the Bishop area by the federal Bureau of Land Management called for closure of 150 miles of motorized trail routes.

If implemented, it would mark a serious blow to riders already hit hard by diminishing opportunities. As anticipated, the public's outcry was loud and large. What wasn't expected was the outcome.

A partnership was formed between the federal agency and stakeholders. A dialogue opened up. Meetings were held. The result was that the closure was narrowed to only five miles, a far cry from what was first proposed. For the long range, participants in the dialogue agreed to continue to meet to discuss common issues.

The government learned a lesson: Plans that involve public lands should involve the public. Riders learned they can have a voice, get results and avoid closure of their favorite trail system.

Closures of OHV trails and areas do not "just happen." Instead, there are typically signals that occur long before closures are the result. Closures start with a lack of communication, ongoing poor management processes, and a lack of proactive environmental planning.

By being aware and involved OHV enthusiast can contribute to actions that avert closures. It may start with a simple question put to the land manager - What can we do to help you manage the land properly?

Mendocino National Forest in northwestern California is an example of where steps have been taken to proactively address trail issues. "Instead of correcting a situation, federal agencies often try to make a mess work," said one observer of the OHV scene. But that's not what happened at Mendocino National Forest.

The Mendocino has 320 miles of OHV trails and offers some of the finest opportunities for OHV recreation in northern California. Among the many steps taken at Mendocino was the designing of trails that are fun and well managed and the rerouting of trails that are sensitive to the environment to minimize impacts to wildlife and prevent rutting and soil erosion. Forest officials have also utilized scores of volunteers in their work.

With nearly five out of every 10 acres of California’s landscape in federal ownership, California’s partnership with the federal government, such as with the U.S. Forest Service and its Mendocino National Forest, is critical in managing OHV recreation where it actually takes place. The 90,000 acres of state-owned OHV facilities, including Hungry Valley, Hollister Hills and Ocotillo Wells, could never realistically accommodate California’s existing and future OHV needs.

Lowell Landowski is an Associate Park and Recreation Specialist in the OHMVR Division. He works closely on almost a daily basis with OHV representatives from both the BLM and USFS.

"The public needs to be involved with both these agencies and their ongoing operations while there are still alternatives available that are short of closure," he said. According to Landowski, there are several areas that could be addressed by members of the public -- management of the trail system, thorough route inventories, trails designations, sign maintenance, wildlife and natural resource monitoring, as well as potential conflicts with other user groups.

"Often, you could avoid trail closure by small, effective measures on the ground that address resource impacts that are site specific," he said. "Stay in touch with these agencies. In many cases there doesn't appear to be a formal framework for the public to proactively deal with potential closures," Landowski said. "Preventing closures involves cooperation and close communication between all interests involved. Public lands are not just the responsibility of the government, but also the public in the use, enjoyment, and management of public lands."

“Efforts should be made to ensure agencies comply with environmental regulations in terms of the California Environmental Quality Act, National Environmental Protection Act, federal Endangered Species Act, Historical Preservation Act and water quality control”, he said.

Mark Conley, BLM’s statewide off-highway vehicle program manager, said of the possibility of closures, “once the hammer drops, it’s hard to reverse it.” However, Conley said the BLM has several programs in place for public involvement and the opportunity to comment on specific management issues.

BLM has technical review teams in place at most of its 16 field offices in California, Conley said, and members include OHV advocates, environmentalists and other stakeholders. At Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, for example, an 11-member technical review team addresses issues.

BLM also has a notification process in place that informs the public when meetings are held to discuss specific topics, such as recent management plans for Imperial Sand Dunes, and works closely with several non-profit organizations, including Friends of Jawbone, Friends of El Mirage and the American Sand Association.

According to Conley, the issue users need to be most vigilant -- he referred to it as the “missing element” - is when threatened or endangered plants or wildlife are being considered for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Once listed, the “powerful Endangered Species Act” takes effect and steps must be taken immediately to protect those species, Conley said. As an example, he said the flat-tailed horned lizard is under consideration for such a listing. If that occurs, he said, it could directly impact Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area and the Imperial Sand Dunes, including the potential closure of riding areas.

"All agencies should make sure that they follow the consultation process," said State Parks' Landowski. "If they did a better job they could avoid lawsuits."

"Like it or not, you have to be part of the solution," offered Don Amador, western region representative for the 600,000-member BlueRibbon Coalition (BRC). "I tell people at every opportunity I have that you have to take it upon yourself to become involved. Make a difference."

But is closure a real issue? Karen Schambach of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation said the situation for riders, in her opinion, is not as dire as some believe it is.

She said the notion that that hundreds of miles of trails are being closed is "way overblown." From her experience, she said, there are legitimate reasons trails are closed and those reasons fall mainly into two categories:

Illegal, user created trails that are resulting in significant resource damage due to a lack of proper design;

Some areas are being closed because they are critical habitat. Efforts to protect listed species are frustrated, she said, because some users will not restrict their use to designated routes and agencies will not finish their important business of clearly designating which routes riders should and should not be using.

"Against that background, agencies are way too slow to respond to any of those categories," Schambach said.

Schambach, a member of California State Parks' OHV Stakeholders Roundtable, sees several ways riders can avoid closure. As examples, she said, they should stay on designated trails, and not ride when conditions are so wet or so dry as to cause damage to the trail.

David Widell, deputy director of California State Parks and Chief of California’s Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Division stated that unless riders come to better understand why their trails are being negotiated away as part of the myriad of OHV related lawsuits cluttering the courts, they will only continue to lose opportunity.

“The bottom line is that most of California’s OHV opportunities, particularly those on federal lands, are incredibly vulnerable to closure because some basic housekeeping measures have yet to be implemented by land management agencies, such as route inventories and trail designation. After three years in this post, it has become painfully clear to me that many of the areas we are riding on are just a lawsuit away from a temporary or permanent closure because a host of laws and mandates that in some instances date back 30 years have never been completed.”

Widell encourages riders not to fall victim to politicized rhetoric that attempts to place blame for closures on a certain group or cause. “It’s far more complicated than that,” says Widell. Riders need to understand that there will always be people who don’t like off-roading, but the best way to defend yourself from their attacks is to “understand the process as well as your adversaries understand it,” he added.

“Ironically, I’m hearing the same plea from both the riders and the environmental community, which is basically about clearly defining the rules of the game and divvying up the landscape in an equitable way for different types of users, as well as wildlife,” said Widell. “I, for one, believe the reasonable players from both sides of this issue would be well served in joining forces to not only push land management agencies to finish up long overdue plans and processes, but also cooperatively advocate for sufficient funding to BLM and Forest Service to ensure they have the resources each year to get the job done.”

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