The road to common sense

THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE’S new rule for off-road vehicles is a pleasant surprise, or at least a very good beginning. Up to now, using off-road vehicles in the national forests has been legal everywhere except where signs say it’s prohibited. The new rule takes the opposite approach: It will be legal to use off-road vehicles only in areas where signs specifically allow it.

The change is subtle but profound; the new rule puts the onus on off-roaders, where it belongs, and should make enforcement easier. Knowing which areas allow off-roading will be the driver’s responsibility. The rule also ends so-called cross-country riding, in which long-distance trails are forged from one mapped area to another.

But its success will depend on what foresters do next. Decisions on off-roading trails will be decided in local planning meetings over the next four years. One thing the Forest Service can do to make that planning a more honest effort is to decide now that illegal routes will remain illegal. Otherwise, off-roaders will be carving up the wilderness with new trails during the next couple of years in hopes of getting as many routes as possible sanctified.

A deadline should be set for the mapping -- as soon as possible. Even then, designating off-road areas will do little good if the Forest Service, already severely understaffed, cannot enforce its own rules.


The service should also impose a daily fee for off-roading under the same rules that allow it to charge $15 or so per night for a camping spot, with the money used to police the forests. Off-roading is harder on the forests -- and Forest Service employees -- than camping, yet there are no fees attached to it. Certainly people who can afford their all-terrain vehicles (and the trailers to haul them to the forests) can pay $5 or $10 a day to enjoy their hobby.

Spokesmen for off-road groups say that illegal off-roading is rare. But these are the same spokesmen who express hopes that the Forest Service will legalize renegade routes.

Forest managers have identified off-roading as the biggest environmental threat to the national forests. It can destroy wetlands in moments, and it disrupts animals’ trails and habitat, tearing up native plants. Yet a single enforcement officer may have to police 1 million acres of land. There are ways to correct this so that off-roaders can have their legal fun -- and the forests can be preserved for the public. The Forest Service has taken a good first step.