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California commission stirs off-road vehicle debate

By DON THOMPSON -- Associated Press Writer
Published 2:34 p.m. PST Monday, February 3, 2003

SACRAMENTO(AP) - An obscure state commission that controls millions of fuel tax
dollars is driving a new debate over the use of off-road vehicles on public lands in

Since a change in the panel's membership last year, commissioners have blocked
grooming of heavily used snowmobile trails near Lake Tahoe; refused to provide money
for a Southern California off-road site that draws 3 million people annually; and
persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw a grant request for one of the nation's
few "urban" national forests.

"Certainly it's a seismic shift in the way this commission has
operated for the past 20 years," said Don Amador,
western representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition of
off-highway vehicle users. But the shift has been welcomed
by conservationists.

Back in 1992, Karen Schambach started protesting how
the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission
awarded grants funded by fuel taxes, off-highway vehicle
registration fees and vehicle recreation area entrance fees.
With $36 million, California's is the nation's largest
off-highway vehicle program.

Environmental concerns weren't considered in "a program
that was run by the (off-road) users," said Schambach,
now state coordinator for Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility.

By 1998, a coalition of environmental groups sued the
Department of Parks and Recreation over grant guidelines
they said illegally disregarded the environmental damage
caused by off-road vehicles.

Gov. Gray Davis' new administration settled the suit. But
the conservation groups said the standards were being
applied only to state off-highway parks that make up about
10 percent of the available acreage, not to federal lands
that account for the bulk of off-highway access.

They set out to gain an outright majority on the
seven-member commission, and in doing so joined an
ongoing debate between Davis and Democratic legislators
over whether administration policies do enough to protect the environment.

Environmental groups pushed legislative leaders to appoint "green" commissioners,
including Paul Spitler, executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition, which
helped sue over the program in 1998.

The Democratic leaders' four members now outnumber the three more
off-road-oriented appointees of the Democratic governor, and have made their majority
count in awarding $16.4 million in grants for this year.

The commission first signaled a sea change last fall in rejecting a U.S. Forest Service
request for $400,000 to groom 118 miles of snowmobile trails used by more than
50,000 snowmobilers in and near the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Some of the trails had been groomed annually since the 1980s, but fell victim to
complaints from cross-country skiers about the machines' noise, pollution and speed in
the increasingly crowded area.

The move was criticized by the Forest Service and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which
was incensed enough to file a still-pending conflict-of-interest complaint against new
Commissioner John Brissenden of Hope Valley, owner of a Lake Tahoe-area resort
near the snowmobile trails.

In January, commissioners split 4-3 in rejecting $1.1 million sought by the Bureau of
Land Management to operate the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, which draws
more than 3 million people annually. Commissioners who opposed the grant were upset
by delays in a BLM management plan and by a Bush administration plan to open
another 49,000 acres to off-roading.

The commission's new split also persuaded the Forest Service to withdraw a request
for $900,000 to study and operate off-road programs in the Eldorado National Forest,
which is battling a lawsuit over its off-highway vehicle programs filed by critics including
Schambach and the Wilderness Coalition.

Located between Sacramento and Reno near Lake Tahoe, the Eldorado is among 21
of the nation's 155 national forests to be labeled an "urban forest" because it is within an
hour's drive of more than 1 million people. The forest recorded 68,600 off-road visits
last year.

The commission last month had its first public hearing on priorities, as required by a
new law dedicating more gasoline tax money to conservation, law enforcement and
restoring areas damaged by off-road vehicles. The same law lowers permitted off-road
noise levels that had been one of the loudest in the nation.

The changes, Amador said, will have "federal agencies re-evaluating the partnership
they've had with the state the last 15-20 years."

But, Schambach said, off-roaders are lucky the Legislature's green majority didn't cut
off all the money. With the new rules and commission majority, "it's a whole new game,
and they're being held to standards they haven't had to follow for 20 years."
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