With a lack of resources and staff leaving federal land managers unable to handle the increasing use of off-highway vehicles on public lands, the agencies must change their planning, communication and enforcement efforts, a government watchdog has found.
Use of OHVs on public lands increased from 2004 through 2008, emerging as a national issue and bringing environmental, social and safety impacts, a new Government Accountability Office report says.
The Forest Service has identified unmanaged motorized recreation as one of the top four threats to national forests. Federal land management agencies have only recently begun to respond to this trend by revising their plans and how they manage OHV use, but they face constrained budgetary and staff resources and other competing management priorities, the report says.
Most officials from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service said OHV-related environmental impacts occur on less than 20 percent of their lands, although a few said such impacts occur on 80 percent or more of their lands, the report says. The most widespread impacts were soil erosion, damage to vegetation, wildlife habitat fragmentation, and the spread of invasive species.
About 110 OHV-related deaths occurred nationwide per year on public lands from fiscal 2004 through 2008, about 570 total, according to data provided by field unit officials. The most often reported social and safety impacts were conflicts between OHV and nonmotorized users, displacement of nonmotorized users, conflicts with private landowners, and irresponsible OHV operation.
Although the agencies reported taking a variety of actions to manage OHV use, agency field unit officials said they cannot sustainably manage their OHV route systems, the report says. Sustainable management would include having the necessary resources available to ensure compliance with regulations, educate users, maintain OHV use areas and evaluate the existing OHV program.
Some agency units have taken actions such as supplementing federal funds with outside resources like state grants, communicating with the public by posting signs and maps, and enforcing OHV regulations by occasionally patrolling OHV areas and writing citations for OHV violations, the report says.
However, few officials said their unit had signs and maps for nearly all of their OHV areas. And while most field unit officials said they conduct enforcement activities, such as writing citations, about half indicated that fines are insufficient to deter illegal or unsafe OHV use.
The Forest Service and BLM in particular will be better able to manage OHV use if they improve their strategic planning, GAO said. For example, the Forest Service's OHV plan does not identify strategies or time frames for implementing important aspects of OHV management, such as motorized-travel designations on the ground, communicating with the public, monitoring OHV trail systems or enforcing OHV regulations.
While BLM's recreation plan contains strategies addressing key aspects of OHV management, the agency has not identified time frames for implementing these strategies or performance measures for monitoring progress, GAO said.
The agencies also should develop more user-friendly maps and signs for their route systems and seek more appropriate fines to deter violations of OHV regulations, GAO recommended.
The Park Service has no extensive planning or guidance for managing OHV use but that "seems reasonable" given that OHV use is limited to only a few units and not a predominant recreational activity on Park Service lands, the report says.
The Interior and Agriculture departments generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations. However, on route designation, the Forest Service feels the existing strategy, time frame and performance measures are appropriate for travel management planning. The agency agreed with GAO's other goals but said its preferred method is development of a national-level plan specifically addressing OHV management.
"While the agency will soon provide guidance to its field staff through the dissemination of an implementation guide, in the future the agency will also develop a strategy, timeframes and performance measures for implementation," the Forest Service said. "Developing strategies and timeframes for this plan will be straightforward. Identifying new performance measures will offer a challenge due to the situation differences, at the local level, and the added costs to collect that information in a way that is accessible and meaningful at the national level."
BLM said it concurred with the recommendations and is developing additional measures and drafting a manual and handbook to provide detailed guidance to field offices.
Click here to read the report.