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Off-Road Vehicle Management under Forest Service Travel Management Rule

Off-Road Vehicle Management: An Assessment of Conditions and Management Approaches.

\arrow Download the full study with management details for the Bitterroot National Forest (pdf 420 kb)

By Neal Christensen and Alan Watson
USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station
, June 1, 2006

Public land managers nationwide are challenged to address increasing off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and the conflicts that arise over the types and locations of that use on National Forest System (NFS) lands. The fastest growing group of forest users on most national forests in the US is OHV riders. Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth cited unmanaged recreation as one of the four major current threats to the nation’s forests and grasslands. In his speeches he has often explained unmanaged recreation using the example of growing OHV use on NFS lands, and during the speech listed at the address link above he said “We have got to improve our management [of OHV’s] so we get responsible recreational use based on sound outdoor ethics.”

"The new travel management rule promises to change OHV planning by requiring formal designation of all areas where motor vehicle use is allowed. "

Chief Bosworth decided that the Forest Service would address OHV issues through a new service-wide travel management rule that would take a systematic approach to designating motor vehicle use on NFS roads, trails and areas by type of vehicle, and if appropriate, by time of year. The process would be designed to involve the public and engage user groups and volunteers to help protect national forest lands through ethical and responsible use. That rule was finalized in November of 2005 and applies to all NFS forests and grasslands. The new travel management rule promises to change OHV planning by requiring formal designation of all areas where motor vehicle use is allowed and by shifting the burden of knowing where legal use can occur from managers (via signage) to users (by referring to travel maps). The travel management rule calls for travel plans to be developed with public input that formally designate and map open roads, trails, and areas by classes of vehicles and times of the year that use may occur.

The challenge for land managers is to determine an appropriate balance between competing desired future conditions on the forest, in this case, the split between motorized and nonmotorized designations on a finite number of travel routes. Both types of users usually desire the same types of settings and experiences. OHV users do not want to run up and down a small spur road all day any more than hikers want to. They all seek destinations, scenery, loops, and access for other activities. The managers would like this report to identify examples of unique, innovative solutions to conflict between user groups that can be incorporated into the ongoing planning process on the BRF. This report provides a source of information for planning OHV use on the BRF as formal travel planning moves forward under the new travel management rule. The following overview may be useful to managers, planners, local citizens, and organized stakeholders to provide understanding of current planning issues, innovative approaches, and the planning situation on the BRF under the new travel management rule.

For consistency with the travel management rule, this report uses the term ‘OHV’ to refer to all types of motorized vehicles capable of traveling off-road. Some of the references within this report use alternative or more specific terms to refer to these vehicles (e.g. ‘ORV,’ ‘ATV’). The term OHV as used in the travel management rule includes four-wheel drive motor vehicles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), motorcycles, and other vehicles capable of cross-county travel over land, water, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or other natural terrain. All of these motor vehicles capable of traveling off-road are considered ‘OHV’s for the purpose of travel management on NFS lands.

USFS OHV Management

Forest Service managers were first directed to address OHV use by identifying acceptable areas and eliminating their use elsewhere through Executive Order 11644, which was signed by President Nixon in 1972. This order was followed by Executive Order 11989, issued by President Carter in 1977, which amended the previous order by requiring managers to close areas adversely impacted by OHV use and authorizing managers to consider lands closed to OHV use unless specifically designated as open. Subsequent regulations and sections of the Forest Service Manual (FSM) and Forest Service Handbook (FSH) were developed to implement these two executive orders, and they provided the general framework for OHV management on NFS lands

The new travel management rule strengthens the previous framework in a number of ways, including requiring, rather than authorizing, managers to designate allowed use. The new rule also softens some of the previous language, for example by requiring managers to close damaged areas until the damage is mitigated rather than eliminated, as required under Executive Order 11989.

The Travel Management Rule

The travel management rule provides a national framework for local units to use in designating a sustainable system of roads, trails, and areas for motor vehicle use. The rule's goal is to secure a wide range of recreation opportunities while ensuring the best possible care of the land. The travel management rule, released in November of 2005, was published in the Federal Register and is available at: http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/ohv/final.pdf. The Federal Registry publication includes an extensive summary of the more than 80,000 public comments received on the travel management rule, the agency responses to the comments, and the specific language of the rule.

Highlights of the Rule

• The rule requires each National Forest or Ranger District to designate those roads, trails, and areas open to motor vehicles.
• Designation will include class of vehicle and, if appropriate, time of year for motor vehicle use. A given route, for example, could be designated for use by motorcycles, ATVs, or street-legal vehicles, and could be open seasonally or year around.
• Once designation is complete, the rule will prohibit motor vehicle use off the designated system or inconsistent with the designations.
• Snowmobiles, while considered to be OHVs by definition, are exempt from the travel management rule requirement to stay on designated routes.
• Designation decisions will be made locally, with public input and in coordination with state, local, and tribal governments.
• The Forest Service can issue temporary, emergency closures of designated routes if they determine OHV use is directly causing or will directly cause considerable adverse effects. The closure notice must include the reason(s) for the closure and how long the closure is estimated to last. The agency must provide public notice of designated route closures.

Designation Effect

The designation requirement of the new travel management rule has generated considerable concern. Many people believe that formally designating all allowable travel routes and identifying them on a travel map will increase OHV use in those areas. Determining whether or not designation of a particular travel route will increase its use is complex, requiring consideration of a number of factors. If the route was previously used as a travel route in a similar way as under the new designation, there may be no change in use patterns or levels. However, if the newly designated route creates a loop connection opportunity that did not previously exist, local use in that area may grow considerably. Effective planning and identification of OHV opportunities must be done from a system perspective that considers a spectrum of recreation opportunities across a fairly large geographic area such as a Ranger District or entire National Forest. While the pubic has expressed similar concerns over the effect of designating national destination areas such as units of the Wilderness Preservation System or National Park System, there appears to be no evidence that formal designation of an existing travel route would necessarily increase non-local visitation or increase overall travel within a region. None of the comprehensive OHV planning bibliographies reviewed and presented in this report sight evidence of travel route designation effects on OHV use levels.

It is likely that increased use on designated routes will result from concentration of use rather than an overall increase in use caused by the designation itself. Although trends nationwide suggest that OHV use will continue to grow overall, increases in local use due to designation under the new travel management rule should be partially offset by decreases or elimination of OHV travel in less suitable areas. While designation itself may not increase use from outside of a region, especially considering that all NFS lands across the nation will be required to designate their OHV routes, changes in local use patterns are likely to occur as a result of the travel planning and formal designation process. The planning process may identify areas to concentrate certain types of use where it is deemed appropriate while use in other areas may be curtailed. The appropriate uses in a particular area must be considered within the larger spectrum of motorized and nonmotorized recreation opportunities across the entire forest, district, or other relatively large planning unit.

Information for OHV Planning

The remainder of this report presents information about a number of valuable resources that were identified during the review of this topic. The sources generally address developing understanding about conflicts, desired type of opportunities, and current tools, innovations, and lessons learned from other travel planning efforts. The information from these sources is briefly described here and then summarized and linked to more complete sources in the appendices of the report. Consultation with experts nationwide has suggested that these resources are among the best examples of current knowledge about OHV planning.

Route and Area Designation Guide

This document was developed by the National OHV Implementation Team to provide a consistent set of guidelines for OHV planning on NFS lands under the new travel management rule. The guide suggests a six-step framework for developing and implementing a comprehensive travel plan under the travel management rule. The process outlined in the Motor Vehicle Route and Area Designation Guide includes the following six major steps which are further described in Appendix A along with a link to the complete guide on the Forest Service internal web site:

1. Compile Existing Travel Management Direction
2. Assemble Resource and Social Data
3. Use Travel Analysis to Identify Proposals for Change
4. Environmental Analysis and Decision-Making
5. Publish Motor Vehicle Use Map
6. Implement, Monitor, and Revise

On-going involvement of the public in OHV planning will be mandatory for public acceptance of the resulting plans. Developing a good understanding of recreation uses, along with environmental and social impacts will improve the acceptability of the final travel plan. In addition to the collaborative approaches described in this report, which have relied on organized stakeholder groups to articulate competing perspectives, this process may benefit from developing understanding of the complex perspectives of average local residents through social science assessments of communities of place and communities of interest in the Bitterroot Valley. With this kind of in-depth understanding of complex local relationships to national forest lands, managers and stakeholders may better work together in the spirit of cooperation, hopefully somewhat diffused from the polarized nature that has marked past contentious OHV planning efforts. While the resources identified in this report are a good snapshot of currently used approaches to OHV system planning, there remain several gaps in knowledge about how to meet and manage OHV demands on the BRF. The following research questions are suggested by the above review of OHV planning literature and the state of knowledge about successful OHV planning:

• What spectrum of experiences and opportunities are desired by OHV users on NFS lands, and what are the limitations of providing them?
• How can OHV and nonmotorized recreation opportunities be equitably considered within overall travel planning to minimize conflict and resource impacts?
• What are the interaction effects of travel planning and forest stewardship/fuels management projects? What are the effects of wildland fires and other natural disturbances on travel systems? What opportunities and constraints do forest stewardship projects present for travel planning?
• How can complex relationships between the public and NFS lands, including relationships involving both use and nonuse values, be incorporated into OHV travel planning?
• What are the best practices for fostering collaborative planning, building trust and accomplishing resource protection and access objectives in a cooperative manner?
• How can estimation and monitoring of OHV use, impact levels, and resource conditions be developed, implemented, and improved?

\arrow Download the full study with management details for the Bitterroot National Forest (pdf 420 kb)

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