RENO, Nev. - A national group representing off-highway recreationists is suing the U.S. Forest Service to try to overturn a new travel management plan on national forest lands in the Sierra west of Reno they say is overly restrictive.
The Pacific Legal Foundation said in a lawsuit filed recently the agency plan adopted in 2010 illegally closed more than 800 miles of roads and trails the public has used for years in the Tahoe National Forest.
"We are filing this lawsuit to stop the U.S. Forest Service from illegally padlocking vast areas of the Tahoe National Forest and blocking the public from enjoying responsible recreational use of public lands," Brandon Middleton, foundation attorney, said in a statement.
Environmentalists counter that a crackdown on dirt bikes, Jeeps and all-terrain vehicles they say have profoundly damaged public land is long overdue.
Tahoe National Forest officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit.
But the conflict has become all too familiar for officials at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management who insist they're trying to strike a difficult balance between recreation and resource protection, a touchy endeavor drawing fire from both sides.
"People care about this," said Leo Drumm, travel and transportation coordinator for the Nevada BLM office.
"As soon as you mention there could be a (road) closure, people get angry because they are used to being able to go where they want to go. When you mention opening new areas, people get angry because they think we're trashing the environment," he told the Reno-Gazette Journal.
The Tahoe plan is associated with policy announced by then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in 2005. Bosworth at the time described unrestricted use of off- highway vehicles as one of the four biggest threats to national forest land along with wildfire, loss of open space and invasive species. He said off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, should be restricted to designated roads and trails across nearly 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.
National forests were directed to prepare plans determining roads and trails where motorized recreation should continue to be allowed and which ones should be closed to the activity. The BLM, which manages some 48 million acres across Nevada, has embarked on a similar direction but is far behind the Forest Service in implementation.
Middleton claims the Forest Service misled the public by promising a plan that would maintain adequate access into the forest but instead imposed a policy of sweeping closures, an act he described as a "bait and switch game."
Similar disputes are under way in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, primarily in northeast Nevada's Elko County, and in the Eldorado National Forest in California mostly west of Lake Tahoe.
In the Eldorado National Forest, a coalition of environmental groups first sued the Forest Service in 2009 over a travel management plan released the previous year.
That accuses the Forest Service of approving a strategy that "illegally prioritizes off-road vehicle use at the expense of traditional recreation and forest health," according to a statement released at the time by the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs.
In May of 2011, a federal judge ruled in favor of the conservation groups, concluding the plan favored motorized recreation over protection of sensitive forest resources in violation of federal law.
Last week, Judge Lawrence Karlton ordered the Forest Service to close 89 miles of popular off-highway vehicle routes that traverse meadows in a ruling associated with the case.
Karen Schambach, president of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, is a party in the Eldorado forest litigation. And contrary to the Pacific Legal Foundation's claims, she doesn't believe the agency's plan goes far enough to protect the Tahoe National Forest either.
"They want unlimited use," Schambach said of motorized recreationists. "I think this lawsuit is based on a philosophic position that nobody should tell people they can't drive wherever they want. They had decades of going anywhere they wanted. That might have been OK in the 1950s. It's not now."
Schambach said the Forest Service's approach to closing some roads and restricting motorized recreation to others is a logical and needed step in addressing a mounting problem that had OHVs damaging meadows and streams, hillsides and sensitive wildlife habitat."
"It had to stop. It was the rational thing to do," Schambach said. "It flies in the face of why we have national forests."
Carl Adams, a Reno resident who regularly rides dirt bikes and Jeeps on national forest land, begs to differ. He claims U.S. land managers are biased against motorized recreation.
Many roads and trails that aren't closed outright are being shut down seasonally, said Adams, who recently produced a video entitled "Access Denied: Closing our Forests."
Some roads left open are difficult to access because connecting routes are closed, while travel maps prepared by the government can be difficult or impossible to interpret, Adams said.
Regulations proposed for Tahoe National Forest are a case in point, he said.
"Basically, the Forest Service is deviating from its congressional mandate for multiple use. They're substituting a self-defined agenda of preservationism," Adams said. "The entire process is a farce. It's clear the Forest Service doesn't want the public in the forest."