State

137 miles of Stanislaus National Forest opened to drivers

SONORA -- The Stanislaus National Forest's new plan for motorized travel drew praise Tuesday from four-wheel-drive enthusiasts but criticism from an environmental leader.

The plan, approved by Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski, bans travel off designated roads and trails, as required by a 2005 federal law.

The plan adds 137 miles of previously illegal routes, such as trails carved by dirt bikes decades ago, to the 2,279 miles of roads and trails where travel is legal.

The new rules will take effect Jan. 1 if they are not appealed.

The increase in approved road mileage will threaten streams and wildlife while burdening the forest's road maintenance budget, said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte.

"This decision defies logic," he said. "It will not only hurt the environment, it will mean that even more taxpayer dollars will end up being wasted."

Buckley added that those who enjoy motorized recreation account for less than 10 percent of forest visitors and the rest "are primarily seeking quiet recreation."

Ken Kolp of Tuolumne, past president of a four-wheeler group called Mud, Sweat & Gears, said the plan appears to preserve the access that drivers need.

He and John Stewart, a natural resources consultant to the California Association of 4-Wheel-Drive Clubs, said they can live with the ban on travel off designated routes.

"We preach to our members, 'Stay on the existing and designated trails,' " Stewart said.

The plan deals with paved, gravel and dirt routes that crisscross the non-wilderness parts of the 898,099-acre forest. Many of them started as roads or railroad grades used by loggers.

The routes get people to fishing holes, campsites, hunting grounds and other destinations. For some visitors, the main recreation is the driving itself.

Under the new rules, drivers can park within one vehicle length of a road but cannot cut across timber stands, meadows or other parts of the forest landscape.

The plan spells out seasonal closures, mainly to keep dirt roads from eroding or compacting in wet weather. It also has rules for snowmobiles.

The forest staff heard from more than 200 people during the planning process, including four-wheel club members, environmentalists and people living near the forest. Some wanted to maintain or increase road mileage. Others sought a reduction because of noise, soil damage, habitat loss or other concerns.

"It is important to me to continue providing motor vehicle opportunities historically enjoyed on this national forest," Skalski wrote in her decision, dated Nov. 12 but released this week. "It is also important to balance overall recreation access with resource protection."

The decision can be appealed to Regional Forester Randy Moore, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service in California.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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