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Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Mountain Democrat/Page One

News and stories from El Dorado County

March 13, 2002 -- Off-roaders fight back in forest trails brouhaha By EDMOND JACOBY Staff writer

A consortium of recreation organizations has filed a motion in federal district court in Sacramento to be permitted to intervene in support of the U.S. Forest Service in a suit seeking to force closure of trails in the Eldorado National Forest.

That suit, brought by the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, the California Wildlife Coalition and the Center for Biodiversity, alleges that the federal agency failed to follow its own prescribed procedures dealing with public comment and environmental impact implications when the forest was redesignated in the 1990s from "open" to "limited" public use under the 1988 Eldorado National Forest Land Management Plan.

The remedy it seeks is an order to close all recreational trails until their use has been found to meet the criteria to be opened for public use.

Rick Guidice, spokesman for the California Enduro Riders Association, said, "I think the recant suit filed by green groups to force a closure of many off-road vehicle and equestrian trails in the Eldorado National Forest goes too far. While I agree the agency may have mismanaged its trail program, we are challenging unnecessary closures and restrictions that ignore sound science, the needs of the resource and reasonable recreational access.

"I think the final outcome of our involvement in this lawsuit will be better management of the resource while at the same time providing a quality trail experience for off-roaders and equestrians," Guidice said.

"You know, on some issues we agree to a certain point with the plaintiffs" in that suit, said Bill Dart of the American Motorcyclists Association's District 36, which encompasses Northern California.

The Forest Service "failed to do several things required in their process," he said, "but what the other plaintiff says is that the Forest Service has to go through the entire (decision-making) process as if from scratch."

Dart said the philosophy applied to redesignating the Eldorado National Forest for limited public use was that a complete revamping of its land use plan is unnecessary.

"There was never a formal decision document created," he said, "and the determination the Forest Service made was never challengeable. It was a short-cut process."

Despite the fact that the consortium agreed, in essence, with the fundamental argument made by the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, its members were strongly at odds with the suit's proposed solution, which Dart characterized as a draconian attempt to block recreational use of the Eldorado forest trails altogether.

"They're right about it being an abuse of process," Dart said of the plaintiffs. "But they want to correct it by forcing the Forest Service to go back and start with a blank page," he said. "It's kind of like assuming someone is guilty until he proves he's innocent. It's not the American way."

Instead, the consortium proposes accepting all existing recreational trails in the forest unless they are shown to be detrimental to habitat or wildlife, he said.

"When you drive down the highway, every side-road you see you assume you can drive down unless you see a sign that says 'Private road -- do not enter,'" he said, calling the plaintiffs' approach the same as requiring drivers to avoid turning onto streets unless they are marked with "This Road Open" signs.

"'Open unless designated closed' is our philosophy, theirs is 'closed unless designated open,'" he said.

"We disagree with (the plaintiffs') objectives, which call for a complete shutdown of the Eldorado forest trails for several years, and won't even allow maintenance of the facilities," Dart said.

"We were considering an action before they filed" to address the procedures problem, "but we want to see the forest open," he said, which left the consortium on the Forest Service's side, despite the procedures disagreement.

The consortium is made up principally of groups that represent trail users, including both equestrian users and operators of off-highway vehicles, although Dart, who represents a motorcycle owners group, is quick to point out that "we support recently proposed legislation to reduce the noise that motorcycles and snowmobiles make."

The consortium includes Friends of the Rubicon, California Enduro Riders Association, District 36 of the American Motorcyclists Association, El Dorado Equestrian Trails Foundation, We the People, California Off Road Vehicle Association, California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs, and the BlueRibbon Coalition. It is represented by Paul Turcke of Boise, Idaho, and Dennis Porter of Redding, California.

E-mail Edmond Jacoby at ejacoby@mtdemocrat.net

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