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To protect forest resources, limit ATV use


Too many people are using national forests as playgrounds for
all-terrain vehicles. The U.S. Forest Service is on the right path with
plans to confine ATVs to an expanded system of designated trails. But
the proposed rules need improvement to ensure adequate protection of our
public forests. Experience in northern Wisconsin demonstrates what is at
stake. ATVs offer pleasant recreation and efficient transportation and
have contributed to Wisconsin's tourism industry. But uncontrolled ATV
use has been a problem in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which
covers 1.5 million acres in 11 counties.

ATV operators off designated trails have introduced noise and air
pollution to sensitive areas, damaged vegetation, caused erosion,
disrupted wildlife and carried in seeds from invasive plants that
hitchhike on tires.

The problem is growing with a rapid increase in the number of ATVs in
Wisconsin. There are now more than 200,000 of the vehicles registered in
the state, roughly double the total of five years ago.

In response, the Forest Service earlier this year unveiled a plan to
rein in ATV riders. The plan calls for adding 100 miles of trails in the
Chequamegon forest, which already has 284 miles of trails. In addition,
ATVs for the first time would be allowed in the Nicolet with the
creation of up to 85 miles of trails.

Riders would be required to remain on the trails; cross-country riding,
formerly allowed in the Chequamegon, would be eliminated. Furthermore,
accommodating riders with new trails would be expected to halt
unauthorized riding.

The Wisconsin plan is part of a nationwide policy to cope with rapid
growth in recreational ATV use. Banning ATVs on all national forest land
is neither justifiable nor enforceable. Rather, the goal is to balance
the interest in ATVs with the national interest in protecting natural
resources and with other recreational interests such as hiking and

Toward that end, the Forest Service has drafted plans to study all
national forests and identify acceptable ATV trails. That's a wise
proposal, but it has shortcomings that invite the following additions.

A two-year deadline for designating trails. Without a deadline, the
study could stretch on indefinitely while the problem grows worse.

An immediate ban against the use of unauthorized trails. The spread of
unauthorized ATV routes on national forest lands should be stopped in
its tracks.

An increased enforcement budget. The Forest Service plan depends on
confining ATV riders to trails. Without plans to enforce the new limits,
unauthorized off-trail riders could render the plan meaningless.

Federal rules on ATVs in national forests should be updated to protect
the forests and the interests of ATV operators. Filling in the gaps in
the Forest Service proposal is an important step.
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