16 Mar 2010, 9:57pm
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Forest travel plan appeals nixed by feds

By Walt Cook, The Union Democrat, March 16, 2023 [here]

The U.S. Forest Service has shot down all appeals to its off-road-vehicle management plan for the Stanislaus National Forest, to the chagrin of several local critics.

The plan is designed to govern motorized travel patterns in the forest for years to come. It could be implemented this spring, according to the Forest Service.

The plan — needed to implement a 2005 federal travel rule — has been in the works for several years.

Among other things, it prohibits travel on hundreds of miles of unauthorized off-road routes within the forest. But it also enters 137 miles of such routes into the official Forest Service route system.

This has resulted in critics from all sides attacking the plan.

The Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Regional office in Vallejo announced last week that all 27 administrative appeals to the plan — specifically, its environmental impact statement — were rejected.

The plan was preliminarily approved by Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski last year.

The appeals came from a variety of groups from across the state for various reasons. Some said the plan’s restrictions are too stringent, while others said the plan goes too easy on off-road-vehicle users.

Locally, the plan was appealed by several entities, including Tuolumne County, Tuolumne County Sportsmen, the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment.

Supervisor Teri Murrison said Friday she was disappointed the county’s appeal was rejected. But, she added, the county has other options.

“I think we’ve exhausted our administrative remedies,” she said. “But I think there’s probably some opportunity to take this further.”

With the administrative appeal process over, the next step would be litigation.

Supervisors primarily appealed two points of the several-hundred-page travel plan: A rule that would require travelers to park vehicles no more than one car length off of forest roads; and another that would close forest roads during the winter.

Winter road closures will potentially limit access during favorable weather conditions, and the vehicle-length rule will prohibit people from pursuing dispersed — or non-campground — camping, especially those who use campers, supervisors said.

Mike Albrecht, past president of TuCARE, shares the county’s view. He, too, said he was disappointed with the Forest Service’s decision.

“It really made no sense to get that (parking rule) amended,” Albrecht said. “I’m surprised they didn’t change their direction on that one. That’s going to have a real impact on folks trying to camp in the woods.”

TuCARE, based in Twain Harte, is generally a proponent of increased forest access and industry rights.

John Buckley, executive director of environmental group CSERC, meanwhile, said photo evidence that he and his staffers submitted to the Forest Service illustrating the damage caused by off-road vehicles — largely from routes that go over steep hills, and cross streams and sensitive wildlife habitat — has been unheeded.

Buckley is particularly critical of the Forest Service’s decision to make official 137 miles of once-unauthorized off-road routes.

CSERC made the move to appeal with the cooperation from a number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

Buckley said his group is currently weighing its options.

“We have to strategize and talk,” he said. “It’s extremely rare that we would ever sue the Forest Service.”

Skalski defended her decision to sign off on the plan, calling it “balanced” at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting.

Though the appeals were rejected, the Forest Service did agree to implement additional measures designed to curb the spread of noxious weeds, including monitoring, educating off-road-vehicle drivers and eradication.

Copyright 2010, The Union Democrat.

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