Nearly 150 off-highway vehicle enthusiasts traded a sunny Saturday in the mountains for an austere meeting room in Modesto. They wanted to hear more about the U.S. government's controversial plan to let parts of the Stanislaus National Forest heal by restricting off-roading.
"Every time we go to something like this, the off-roaders lose," said Mike Damaso of Turlock. He belongs to the Merced Dirt Riders and 4-x-4 In Motion, two clubs whose members showed up in droves Saturday for the last of nine informational meetings.
U.S. Forest Service officials will continue collecting comments on proposed restrictions through Friday, then begin environmental studies. The new rules could be ready by fall.
The push affects all 19 of California's national forests, each of which is adopting its own rules to help preserve wildlife habitat and reduce soil compaction and erosion.
By a show of hands Saturday, off-roaders far outnumbered prospectors, hunters and environmentalists, though some indicated they belonged to two or more categories. Many were chagrined at proposed bans on venturing off of 3,000 miles of designated forest roads in muddy and snowy seasons.
Another 700 miles could become off-limits because those paths run across private land, much of it owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, and the government has not obtained rights of way.
"If you condense the area (permitted), you're putting us all in on top of each other and that creates risk of injury," said John Robinson of Modesto, who said he takes his two daughters off-roading. He's also worried that the Forest Service is considering closing many wide, flat roads perfect for teaching children to ride.
Many in Saturday's audience said off-roading provides quality family time. James Fleming of Riverbank learned from his father, he said, and has spent every New Year's Day for the past 15 years off-roading with his children. "It's all family," said Da-maso.
Jim Andersen of Oakdale said he and his buddies have donated hundreds of hours over many decades with chain saws and shovels, fixing mountain trails and rerouting others to encourage growth and healing.
Dennis Scroggins of Oakdale, a Merced Dirt Rider, said he considers himself an environmentalist because he loves nature. "I get excited when I see deer and other animals. We're not anti-plant life and animal life," he said.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said many off-roaders are unduly alarmed. He noted that the Forest Service's proposal would welcome off-roading on 1,600 miles of roads and trails -- a far more generous amount than in many other national forests.
Others, such as the El Dorado National Forest, have adopted stringent bans allowing vehicles to venture off many roads by the length of a single vehicle during seasonal closures. That affects campers, firewood gatherers and many other users. Stanislaus National Forest rangers are offering 100 feet off of many roads.
"We're grateful that the forest has moved part way through a long overdue process," Buckley said.
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