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Public Land, ATV Fans Square Off at Hearing

All-terrain vehicle enthusiasts shouldn’t expect a joy ride this morning as a controversy over the use of public lands for off-road motorbikes roars into a Senate hearing room today.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee is looking into how well the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are managing a difficult balance between preserving public lands and wildlife habitats while also maintaining trails for ATVs.

But critics of the ATVs, also called off-highway vehicles, say legislation may be the only solution.

“We’re not opposed to the use of OHVs on public lands, but we’re against the reckless use that is damaging fish and wildlife,” said Brad Powell, the Arizona public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

He said he supports more Congressional oversight, such as today’s hearing, and wants more funding mechanisms to help the BLM and Forest Service map out specific trails and “bring some order to this process. Congress is finally recognizing that these are important issues on public lands and is starting to pay some attention to it.”

In recent years, off-highway vehicle use has dramatically increased. According to some estimates, the number of riders increased nearly 40 percent from 1999 to 2003.

“There’s a lot of concern about OHV management on public lands, and there are a lot of folks who have desires for the agencies to do a better or different job,” said Scott Miller, the Senate committee’s specialist on public lands issues. “We’re really exploring what the problems are and whether they can be fixed and if so how.”

Ed Moreland, the vice president of government relations for the American Motorcyclist Association, said his organization’s 300,000 members also want the BLM and Forest Service to have the resources to maintain trails for off-road vehicles.

“As quickly as the activity and use level has grown, the [BLM and Forest Service] budgets and riding opportunities have fallen, which has pushed more and more people on fewer areas of property,” said Moreland, who will testify at today’s hearing. “The tension is there in part because people want to recreate on well-managed and groomed trails and the agency is unable to or been unwilling to manage the lands properly.”

Critics of the off-road motorbikes say many riders venture into areas, including private lands, where they’re not permitted to go. They also say there needs to be tighter safety restrictions for drivers, some of whom are children.

Emily Romero, director of the New Mexico Public Lands Action Network, said her group has three main concerns: that riders know the laws and follow them, that people wear helmets and that local and federal law enforcement have the resources they need to enforce the laws.

“We’re asking, ‘Are the penalties strong enough, or do they need to be strengthened?’” she said. “We’re not opposed to ATV or off-road vehicle use, but they need to stay in the trails and use safety equipment and be responsible.”

Moreland conceded that “there may be some bad actors out there who don’t play by the rules, and we encourage law enforcement to prosecute them.”

But according to prepared testimony of Frank Adams, executive director of the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association, many towns don’t have the resources to deal with the off-roaders, which he called a “growing burden on local law enforcement caused by a growing minority of reckless OHV riders.”

All sides do seem to agree that the BLM and Forest Service need more funds to deal with the issue. “The Forest Service is attempting to inventory all trails on all forests,” Moreland said. “Congress has given the Forest Service an unfunded mandated and an artificial deadline [of] 2009.”

If trails aren’t on the map, Moreland said, then they’ll be closed to recreational motorbikes. As a result, the American Motorcyclist Association’s members have started a campaign to contact their Members of Congress. And, Moreland said, “it’s of such great concern that members of AMA and other organizations have actually gone out and purchased their own GPS equipment to help the Forest Service inventory the trail system.”

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