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gnarlykaw

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New forest plan would add miles of trails for ATVs
By Sara Shipley
Post-Dispatch
11/09/2003


Shawn Deason uses a Global Positioning System receiver to mark illegal ATV trails in the Mark Twain National Forest near Potosi.
(Teak Phillips/P-D)

Officials of Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest want to open as much as 215 miles of forest trails to off-road vehicles to study their effect - a move that environmental groups call illogical and illegal.

The plan, which calls for little public input and no formal environmental analysis, may revive a showdown over all-terrain vehicle use in the 1.5 million acre forest. The U.S. Forest Service dropped its last proposal to expand ATV trails in the Mark Twain a decade ago amid overwhelming public opposition. A similar battle led to a ban on ATV use in Illinois' Shawnee National Forest in 1995.

The latest Mark Twain plan was developed in conjunction with trail rider groups. The proposal would authorize off-road vehicles in three areas on existing roads and trails - many of them created by illegal use - in order to examine the environmental impact and the effect on illegal riding elsewhere. After three years, the Forest Service would decide whether to keep the trails open.

The Forest Service already knows that off-road vehicles erode soil, illegally rip through streams and trespass onto neighboring private land. The study is needed, officials said, to determine if opening new legal trails would minimize damage and illegal riding.


"The whole goal is to have the best scientific data available so that we can determine when, whether and if ATV use is an appropriate use here on the Mark Twain," Forest Supervisor Ronnie Raum said.

Environmental groups called the study a ruse employed to open more ATV trails without awakening public opposition.

"It's an outrage," said Ted Heisel, the new executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "We can't afford to sacrifice any more of our public lands to concentrated ATV trails when we know for a fact they damage the environment."

Off-road vehicle use has been called "the issue of the decade" by top Forest Service officials. Pressure is mounting on public land managers to provide trails for the estimated 36 million people who own dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles and jet skis in the United States.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said unmanaged ATV use was one of the top four threats to national forests, along with invasive plants and animals, loss of open space and wildfires.

Clashes over the issue have erupted in Missouri and Illinois for years. After a court battle between environmental groups and the Forest Service, a judge granted an injunction in 1995 that barred ATV use in the Shawnee National Forest, pending further study. Forest spokeswoman Becky Banker said law enforcement officers had a hard time keeping up with ATV riders who illegally roam the 286,000-acre forest.

Legal use could resume under a new forest plan. A draft plan is due in December 2004, she said.

In Missouri, the Mark Twain National Forest may be about to repeat a 10-year-old battle over ATV use.

In 1993, the Forest Service proposed opening 308 miles of trails and roads for ATVs, dune buggies and other off-road vehicles in the Salem and Potosi forest districts. Forest Service employees completed a 193-page draft environmental impact statement, which found that motorized traffic would cause erosion and rutting, muddy streams, squashed plants and injured wildlife.

None of these obstacles would be impossible to overcome, then-Forest Supervisor Eric Morse said at the time. Stream closures, erosion control devices and other management techniques could help minimize the impact.

Morse endured a barrage of comments over the proposal, some even condemning him to "eternal damnation." Morse said that the ATV proposal was the only hot-button issue he lost sleep over in 33 years with the Forest Service. After receiving more than 3,000 comments, he dismissed the project in March 1994.

"There was a very wide spectrum of opposition," Morse told the Post-Dispatch in 1994. "It's not just radical environmentalists, it's everybody. If you're an ATV user, you're in favor. If you're anybody else on the planet, you're against."

Since then, the forest has gotten a new supervisor and the number of ATV users has grown. Missourians bought 26,788 off-road motorcycles and ATVs in 2001, ranking the state 13th nationwide, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Raum came to the Mark Twain in September of last year from Texas, where he was forest supervisor at the National Forests and Grasslands.

"Texas, like Missouri, was in the top third in the nation for ATV sales," Raum said. "We had a number of partnerships with trail user groups, to help us find places for them to use ATVs with a minimal type of impact."

Raum appears to be using a similar approach here. He said he got the idea for the expanded trail system after ATV enthusiasts overwhelmed a series of public meetings this summer with demands for more trails.

Working with off-road vehicle groups, the Forest Service identified three areas where use is extensive. In the Potosi ranger district, officials targeted an old mining area near Palmer, Mo., about 10 miles southwest of Potosi. The Cherokee Pass area lies south of Fredericktown, Mo., on either side of Highway 67. The third area is north of Williamsville, Mo., in the Poplar Bluff ranger district.

Surveys aren't final yet, but Forest Service officials estimated trail lengths to be 100-150 miles for Palmer; 25-35 for Cherokee Pass; and 20-30 for Williamsville. Some of those trails will be closed.

Maps should be completed later this month and will be handed out for public comment as part of a scoping process, said Kristine Swanson, the forest's recreation manager. Public use would begin next summer, when the Forest Service would start monitoring trail use and environmental impacts. The Forest Service plans to charge a user fee and close areas that are being abused.

Unlike the last go-round, no formal environmental assessment would be done before opening the trails. Forest Service officials plan to bypass that requirement by using a "categorical exclusion" allowed for trail maintenance and repair. At the end of the study, officials would conduct a full-blown environmental assessment before permanently adding trails to the system, Swanson said.

Environmental groups say that violates the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a detailed study of any proposed action that would have a significant environmental impact.

"It's a flagrant violation of NEPA," said Jim Scheff of St. Louis, a founder of the Missouri Forest Alliance.

Swanson said the study was not an attempt to get around federal rules. "We know we have a problem out there, and this is what we're proposing to fix the problem," she said.

Off-road vehicle riders already have 150 miles of trails set aside for them in the Mark Twain at Chadwick and Sutton Bluff. Additionally, ATVs may use any numbered Forest Service road.

Those areas can't accommodate all users, off-road enthusiasts said. Members of the Midwest Jeep Thing club, who helped map the Palmer trails using hand-held GPS tools, said their truck-sized vehicles had no legal place to play in the Mark Twain.

They favor the old mine tailing "ponds" around Palmer, where scraggly trees poke up from gravel piles that are criss-crossed with tire tracks and pocked with rutted mud holes.

"The land's been so affected in the past, we won't have any impact," said Jim Williams, 41, of Ballwin. Like many off-roaders, he said Jeep drivers are family-oriented, law-abiding and environmentally conscious.

But some ATV riders don't mind crowing about their unauthorized exploits. One Web site reports a ride with "a lot of rock climbing and creek crossing" at an illegal spot near Rock Creek.

Jim Bensman of Wood River, Ill., forest watch coordinator for the environmental group Heartwood, criticized the Mark Twain's plan to condone use of illegally created trails.

"You don't reward criminal activity by giving them nice new areas to destroy," he said.

But Potosi District Ranger Katherine Stuart said she hoped the plan would encourage more responsible use. "We're hoping by providing some legal opportunities, people will have a better environmental ethic," she said.

Reporter Sara Shipley:
E-mail: sshipley@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8215