Recreation groups angle to open more lands to off-road vehicles, call for ESA reform

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth says illegal off-road vehicle use is one of the top threats to national forests, eroding soil and destroying habitat. But ORV groups contend that the Endangered Species Act and other laws put too much land off limits to law-abiding riders. How will new rules from the Forest Service address ORV use? Do federal officials have the resources to enforce the regulations? And how could changes to ESA affect recreational lands? Scott Kovarovics, director of the National Trails and Waters Coalition, and Jack Welch, president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, explain the dueling priorities facing federal land managers.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Today’s topic is off-road vehicle use in national parks and forests. Our guests are Jack Welch, president of the Blue Ribbon Coalition and Scott Kovarovics, coalition director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. Gentlemen thank you both for being here.

Jack Welch: Thank you.

Scott Kovarovics: Glad to be here.

Colin Sullivan: Mr. Welch, let's start with you. You're in DC from Golden, Colorado for something called the National Motorized Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Summit. What is that and what's the agenda you're trying to spread in Congress?

Jack Welch: Well this is the first time that BlueRibbon, along with the ORBA, the Off-Road Business Coalition, and SEMA, the Special Equipment Marketing Association, have come together to have an event in Washington, DC where we brought in people from literally coast to coast of different types of off highway vehicle recreation on lands and waters. Our primary focus was to talk about issues to do with the Endangered Species Act. We had a hearing on motorized recreation on federal lands, yesterday, and we've scheduled visits. I and a small group visited with Secretary Gale Norton yesterday. We’re finishing up today and most of us are flying home this evening.

Colin Sullivan: If you could sum up your agenda in one sentence what would it be? What’s your message, if you want to give us a talking point?

Jack Welch: The Endangered Species Act needs to be updated.

Colin Sullivan: Scott, let's go to you. What is your position on off-road vehicle use in national parks and forests?

Scott Kovarovics: My group's position is that this use needs to be better managed in order to protect public lands and a wide range of recreational opportunities can be appropriate on public lands when effectively managed. That's the goal that we’re working to achieve.

Colin Sullivan: Now some critics might say that your goal is to make parks completely non-motorized. Is that true? Are you anti-off-road vehicles?

Scott Kovarovics: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. We've, in fact over the last two years, been working closely with the forest service that's been developing a regulation that would, in the forest service opinion, better improve management of off-road vehicle use on public lands. And I think in and of itself, if the group's goal was to ban this use we wouldn’t be as engaged as we have been, I think, in a constructive way with the forest services. It's moving forward to continue to regulate this use while allowing it on national forests.

Colin Sullivan: So what is your goal? To what extent should this be regulated?

Scott Kovarovics: Well I think it should be very carefully regulated and President Nixon said that 30 years ago when he issued the first Executive Order concerning off-road vehicle use on federal lands. What the chief, I think, has acknowledged over the last several years here is the situation has become unmanaged with impacts that are not sustainable to the land, to wildlife, to a lot of other users and it needs to be more actively managed. There's some places where this use isn't appropriate, shouldn't occur. Those places where it is, the use should be on designated roads and routes where it can be effectively managed.

Colin Sullivan: Jack, what's your response to that?

Jack Welch: Well, I think we agree. In fact, we had a meeting yesterday morning with representatives of the forest service to talk about the yet to be released OHB rule and I believe, and the folks I represent, that responsible off highway vehicle recreation is appropriate. We also agree that there are areas that it is not appropriate and our goal is to make sure that the resources, the funding and the time to go through an inventory and then a designation process is done on the appropriate forests. And that it is done in such a manner that there is local input, because –

Colin Sullivan: Well if someone was approaching this issue not knowing much about the issue, what are we talking about here? Where is it appropriate? Where is it inappropriate? I mean the issue sort of whether or not the trails are legal or illegal and whether or not you are allowed to use these vehicles on gravel roads or paved roads, where is it appropriate?

Jack Welch: Well it's a little more complicated than that. Where it's appropriate is determined by the circumstance of the trail, the condition. Some trails are built specifically for off highway vehicle activity. Some trails are designed for hiking. The biggest thing is that, the issue that we have really recognized, is that most off-road travel is no longer appropriate. You need to be on a trail and those trails need to be designated so you know are those trails are and there are a lot of user trails that have been created by users over the years. There's a lot of issues related to the forest service not having the resources to manage the trails and mark them and so it's time to – motorized recreation is growing exponentially and it's time for the agency to get their hands around it.

Colin Sullivan: So when the forest chief, Dale Bosworth says that illegal ORV trails are one of the four threats facing the forest system, you agree with that?

Jack Welch: Well –

Colin Sullivan: Illegal trails.

Jack Welch: First of all that's part of what he said. What he said is unmanaged recreation and then he said specifically OHV recreation needs to be managed. So what we have is a situation where an agency that's been involved in measuring their success by trees cut and board feet is now starting to appropriately look at managing recreation, which can be a real, I guess you'd say, costly situation to the environment if it's not properly managed. And all that starts with education and communication and that's what it's all about.

Colin Sullivan: Scott, what's your response to what the forest chief had to say about the four threats facing forests?

Scott Kovarovics: We agree 100% and I think he's right on target. He's consistently carry this message forward over the last couple of years and I think the chief, as Jack has mentioned here, talked about unmanaged recreation in the context of unmanaged off-road vehicle use. He wasn't talking simply about the problem being user created routes that never should have been there. It was more general than that in terms of the agency’s kind of lax approach to management over the last several decades, but we support what the forest service is trying to do and we’re working closely with them.

Colin Sullivan: I mean how do you do this? Are you talking about the federal government hiring a bunch of police officers to go out and police off-road vehicle use and snowmobiles and what have you? I mean if the resources are already depleted how is that possible?

Scott Kovarovics: I think it's a combination of approaches. Part of it’s law enforcement. The agencies need more personnel and you've got the average for the forest service one law enforcement person for more than 400,000 acres, half the size of the State of Delaware. You can't properly regulate use there. It's provision of information as Mr. Welch has talked about. Making sure users know where the appropriate routes are. It's designating them. It's a number of these things. It's also – you know coming at this from a mind set on the part of the agency that we have limited resources. We ought to be developing systems of routes that we can actually manage, maintain and enforce, rather than simply kind of accepting what may be out there on the landscape and trying retroactively to manage it.

Colin Sullivan: Jack, what's your response to that? Do you think the federal government has the resources to put police officers in every national park?

Jack Welch: Well first of all, we're not talking about national parks, we’re talking about national forests and I want to also make clear this rule has no impact on snowmobiling. Snowmobiling is exempt from this rule. This is a rule that only deals with summer recreation on the national forests. I believe that the phase in of this with identifying routes, marking routes, providing information and then after the education, yes, there's going to be some enforcement, but the important thing is that the forest service needs to spend the time and effort, and they'll have partnerships with the enthusiasts, but they need to identify what’s out there. And then from that they need to designate what’s appropriate and until they do that, enforcement is wholly not possible, because people – you can't enforce something that people are unaware of. I mean yes, if you close an entire forest, but we clearly don't believe that's going to happen. We think that it's going to be a building process. It's not going to happen in a matter of months. It's going to take years and the whole ecosystem is going to be better, but it's going to take time.

Colin Sullivan: Well I'm wondering why are you targeting the Endangered Species Act specifically? If we could switch from the forest service regulation to ESA, what's wrong with ESA from your perspective?

Jack Welch: Well the biggest thing that's wrong with the ESA is that the mechanisms for listing a species and the level of documentation required is not a great threshold, however to get it unlisted and then when it does get listed the management and the habitat and all these things. What happens is the land managers basically have, in many cases, no choice. They have to close a particular area. Then they don't have the resources to do the necessary review and good science and so people lose riding opportunities.

Colin Sullivan: Scott, do you have any take on ESA and the affect on off-road vehicle use?

Scott Kovarovics: Well my understanding of the Endangered Species Act is somewhat limited. What I do know is according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and they've gone back and looked at decisions and projects of 13,000, between 96 and 2003, two, only two weren’t allowed to go forward. All the rest of them went forward with reasonable accommodations. With respect to off-road vehicle use, in the few examples that I know about where the Endangered Species Act has come into play, places like Southern California, what’s happened is large areas remained open for this use. And what we have, in fact, seen in some places in Southern California where some protections have been put in place under the Endangered Species Act, off-road vehicle use actually doubled over the last five years. So I'm not quite sure the degree to which it’s that particular law, in many places, that’s adversely affecting riding opportunities.

Colin Sullivan: Jack, what's your response to that?

Jack Welch: Well, I think it's a bigger issue than that and that is that it has an effect on the ability of land managers. Again, it pulls away resources. It requires a great deal of consultation of forest service with the Fish and Wildlife Service and so they can't work on other things. Spending RTP money, which is money that's derived from gas taxes of off-highway vehicles, it goes for all trails. I think the biggest thing that was brought to my attention here was we have 1400 endangered species that are on the list. Since 1973, when the legislation was passed, we've recovered, any way you count it, 12 to 15, 12 to 15 and some of those were recovered because they went extinct. So that's not a very good track record.

Colin Sullivan: And how is this affecting some of the other vehicle associations that you represent, snowmobiles and jet skis and stuff like that? You're concerned about these for ESA as well?

Jack Welch: Well absolutely. Snowmobiles are affected in the West, where I'm from, because of issues related to the Canadian lynx. Canadian lynx is a nocturnal animal. There are questions to do with snow compaction, whether it be by snowmobile, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, ski areas and so that’s got an affect on our ability there. In the case of personal watercraft there's issues related to the manatee. I was down in Florida this year and there's concerns about the manatee and interaction with personal watercraft, however I think the manatee probably would be better served by a massage by a jet pump than a propeller that chops holes in them. But again, it's an issue of different plants and animals affecting the ability to use public lands and the process taking so long to deal with it that's our biggest concern.

Colin Sullivan: Scott, what's your response to that?

Scott Kovarovics: I'm not familiar with the lynx situation and snowmobiles. Down in Florida you’ve got a long standing effort to protect the manatee. It's extremely important to the residents down there. And again, I think in the scheme of things, when you look across the board here, I haven't seen the evidence to suggest that the Endangered Species Act and its application is broadly affecting off-road vehicle use over large areas. I think you've got a few of these incidences, and even in those places use continues in many of them.

Colin Sullivan: Now it seems to me there's a bit of a philosophical difference here. On your web site, I went to your web site, you have a quote that says, “Preserving our natural resources for the public instead of from the public.” What do you mean by that? I mean some critics would say that you're basically saying natural resources, the plan is out there to be our personal playground. Is that not true?

Jack Welch: Well that's our motto and in simple terms what we're saying there is that we believe responsible use of our public lands is appropriate for whatever form of recreation. In addition to representing OHV’s we represent mountain bikes and equestrians and they all have different issues related to the use of public lands. What we don't want to see is areas that are locked up from those uses without an appropriate process.

Colin Sullivan: Scott, on the other hand why shouldn’t snowmobilers or other off-road vehicles have just as much access to a national park as say a hiker or camper? I mean why is there different standard?

Scott Kovarovics: Well if you look at it strictly in the context of national parks, I mean it's the highest conservation standard for national parks under law and long, long standing practice. That isn't to say that that use can't be allowed, in some places it can be. I think this debate really, as Jack mentioned, is focusing more on national forests and BLM land, the vast federal estate that's out there. And there it isn't an issue of not being allowed, there's ample access, 274,000 miles of roads and routes on national forests. I believe the chief put out a bigger number yesterday, some 169 million acres of BLM land in the lower 48. That's nearly 94% of all BLM land in the lower 48 states. So I think there is abundant access there. The parks are a slightly different situation I think, again, coming back to the conservation mandate.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Do you have a response?

Jack Welch: Yeah and I agree. National parks are special places and we believe that in those special places there can be appropriate access, i.e. Yellowstone National Park and snowmobiles. We don't believe that the same level of access should be provided in a national park that there is in a national forest because it's a different standard. It's a different backdrop. It's a higher level of protection. So we recognize the different standards and want to work with the agencies to accomplish their goals.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We'll have to leave it at that. Jack Welch, Scott Kovarovics, thank you both for being here.

Jack Welch: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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