Off-road traffic inspires lawsuit
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Friday claiming Eldorado National Forest has not taken the appropriate steps to manage off-road vehicles.
The three environmental groups, the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity and California Wilderness Coalition, argue that Eldorado failed to complete an environmental study of its trail system as directed in 1997 by the Washington office of the U.S. Forest Service.
The groups say without a complete analysis of roads and trails in the forest, regulations can’t be created. That means, they say, off-road vehicles, such as SUVs, motorcycles and ATVs, will continue to motor off marked trails and roads, damaging soil, vegetation and wildlife.
“There was a letter that came from our Washington office and it’s been under interpretation ever since,” said Frank Mosbacher, Eldorado public affairs officer. “We’re not taking a one-plan approach for the entire forest. We’re taking the approach that looks in larger geographic areas; individual environmental assessments.”
Eldorado is a 600,000-acre public forest, 100,000-acres of which make up Desolation Wilderness, an area reserved for hikers. Eldorado reaches west to Georgetown and Pollock Pines and east to to the edge of the Lake Tahoe Basin. It contains the Rubicon Trail, a world renowned four-wheel drive road which runs east from Loon Lake to the West Shore.
In 1988, CSNC sued Eldorado and won. At issue was Rock Creek, a popular outdoor recreation spot in the northwest corner of Eldorado Forest. The 23,000-acre area underwent an environmental assessment, but not an Environmental Impact Statement. A judge ruled an EIS was needed.
The EIS was completed in 1999. Eldorado Forest officials were able to designate trails for hikers, motorcycles, horses or all three, depending on the environment.
CSNC’s latest lawsuit against Eldorado also finds fault with the Rock Creek off-road vehicle plan. They argue it failed to “adequately address impacts to soils and wildlife.”
Eldorado is in the process of getting the newly classified trails put in the code of the U.S. Forest Service. Mosbacher said he expects the process to be complete in about 30 days.
“Then our designated system will be enforceable in court,” he said. “People can be cited and the court will uphold it.”
Karen Schambach, CSNC president, says right now in Eldorado, signs are the only form of law enforcement.
“The Eldorado relies on signs that are routinely vandalized,” she said. “Their law enforcement officers can’t cite riders going off designated routes; the riders know this and the irresponsible ones are taking full advantage of the situation.”
Law enforcement officers do have some weapons in their arsenal. They can punish off-roaders by issuing them a ticket for damaging the environment. Mosbacher admitted those cases are difficult to prove in court. Officers also can issue tickets concerning registration of off-road vehicles. Mosbacher said that in 2000 Eldorado law enforcement issued more than 80 citations, eight of which were for damaging the environment.
“They are doing damage control rather than prevention,” said Karen Schambach, CSNC president. “They should have done the analysis. We’ve been after them for years to do it.”
Eldorado is in the process of mapping out all roads and trails in the forest with a Global Positioning System. The Forest Service also is looking to acquire grant money to fund environmental assessments of additional sections of the forest.
“We’re working on funding to accomplish projects — they can be quite pricey,” Mosbacher said. “For example rerouting a small section of trail in Rock Creek cost about $20,000.”