National Forests: a battle over mapping roads and trails

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Jane Steadman has spent the last couple years wrestling over obscure but hotly contested maps showing where people can drive in national forests. “We’re portrayed as people who want to shut down all roads in the national forests, but we’re not,” said Steadman, an attorney with the Wilderness Society, who spoke at the 29th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference this weekend in Eugene, Ore.

“We’re all hikers and bikers and we use the national forests like everyone else. We just want that to be a quality experience.”

A 2005 Bush administration law, called the Travel Management Rule, mandated that the U.S. Forest Service determine which of its roads were legal for public use, and publish Motor Vehicle Use Maps.

Before that, thousands of miles of roads and trails in the national forests hadn’t been well-defined; the chaotic mix of fire, mining, logging and private roads, ORV trails, user-created two-tracks, and even ad hoc racetracks were mostly open for use unless specifically designated as closed.


The new rule reversed that logic, allowing driving only on newly designated routes. Now, however, activists are finding that many user-created trails and roads that were meant to be temporary are turning up on the maps.

But removing them from the maps has been unpopular with off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, hunters and others who want more motorized access. Roads in the National Forests have been a hot-button issue since President Richard Nixon ordered the management of ORV traffic on public lands in 1972, and jumped to center stage in 2001 with rules keeping public lands roadless where possible.

The conference, a gathering of hundreds of attorneys and activists at the University of Oregon Law School, convenes annually to discuss thorny environmental issues from the nuts and bolts of water oil spill litigation and energy policy to the crunchy lifestyle notes of bridging the gap between organic and corporate farms. It was the first environmental law conference, and is billed as the most important such gathering in the world.

Steadman’s panel, one of more than 100 at the four-day confab, was focused on the roadless maps. “The problem that we’re having with the Forest Service process is that when they include a trail, they say, ‘Well, it’s already been on the ground for five years, so there are no impacts. We’re not building any new road,’' said co-panelist Cyndi Tuell, an advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. ‘But we say: ‘How do we know? It never went through National Environmental Policy Act studies. No one knows if there was a critical archaeological site, or an endangered plant or animal.”

Sarah Peters, an attorney with Wildlands CPR who was also on the panel, added, “If they’re going to keep that road, then fine, but we have to know how to maintain it. They want to keep these roads but they often have no funding for fixing them.”

The process of analyzing the existing roads in the forests and putting them on maps is now about 68% done, Steadman said, citing USFS reports. The process is expected to be done by the end of 2011. However, the procedures for getting public comment and making changes to these maps varies by Forest Service district, leading to frustration among activists.

Tuell pointed out that information about new roads was not presented to the public in useful ways -- for instance, as a draft with new roads highlighted. An interested party, she said, could only “watch every single map in your district, and when you see a road that you question, you have to report it and challenge it.” She advocated an army of hikers with cameras documenting where user-made trails were causing erosion or destroying sensitive areas.

“But what can you do to push for enforcement, once the maps are out?” asked someone in the audience.

“Well, you can go on embarrassment campaign,” said Tuell, only half-joking. In many instances, she said, when the USFS was presented with evidence that their maps included trails that were clearly user-made and not even passable, they put them in what the service called a “bucket” for reconsideration. [Corrected: an earlier version of this post said that Jane Steadman litigated these maps, but in fact she does policy work and writes comments on them without engaging in actual litigation.]

-- Dean Kuipers

An off-road vehicle and its passengers travel through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times