Tighter off-road plan for Stanislaus Forest ordered
January 7, 2013
• Forest Service must minimize environmental damage by unauthorized travel
• “The Forest Service squandered an important opportunity”
The U.S. Forest Service failed in its management of forest trails created by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest, the vast Sierra Nevada area between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, a U.S. District Court has ruled.
The court decision says that the Forest Service’s Travel Management Plan (TMP) violated federal law because it did not minimize damage to the environment caused by off-road vehicles.
U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller ordered a hearing on Feb. 15 to consider remedies for the illegal TMP.
"The Forest Service squandered an important opportunity to finally do something about highly destructive impacts caused by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus Forest,” says Erin Tobin, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. “This decision confirms that the Forest Service needs to do a better job of protecting the forest and its streams and wildlife from these damaging machines.”
Conservation groups sued in August 2010 to stop Forest Service approval of 137 miles of off-road vehicle routes – saying many of them would cause environmental harm in the Stanislaus National Forest. The suit sought to block a significant expansion of motorized trails that could damage streams and habitat for rare species. Among the affected wildlife are California spotted owls, northern goshawks, and western pond turtles, the only species of turtle native to California.
The newly authorized routes would have allowed noisy off-road vehicles to enter 55 separate “protected activity centers” that the Forest Service had previously established to protect spotted owls and goshawks while they are nesting and raising young.
“We recognize the importance of balancing the desires of off-highway-vehicle advocates with the needs of the vast majority of forest visitors who seek quiet recreation and want appropriate protection of water and wildlife resources,” says John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. “Now we hope that all parties can work cooperatively to come up with a revised plan that steers off-road vehicles to those specific areas of the national forest where they cause the least resource impacts and the least conflict with non-motorized recreational visitors.”
The court did not order closing of any specific off-road vehicle trails, but will consider in a future proceeding what the appropriate remedy should be to rectify the Forest Service's violations of law. But the court ruling does side with the conservation groups in finding that the Forest Service failed to affirmatively take steps to minimize damage caused by off-road vehicle trails, as required by law.