Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
E&E: Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Obama administration yesterday opposed a GOP bill to overturn a rule requiring limits on off-highway vehicle use in national forests, saying the measure could impair public safety, increase costs for taxpayers and potentially harm the environment.

But the administration also acknowledged that it failed to adequately engage the public as it implemented the 2005 travel management plan in eastern Oregon.

The bill, H.R. 4272 by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), was among several public lands proposals heard yesterday before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Walden said the bill was a response to the Forest Service’s decision to close 4,000 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in 2012, a decision he called “an assault on good process and rural traditions.” The bill was also backed by Union County Commissioner Steve McClure, who called the 2012 plan “a study in the wrong way to do” travel planning.

But Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon said the Wallowa-Whitman plan, which has since been withdrawn, was the exception to a rulemaking effort that has seen “great success” in a majority of the 90 percent of national forest units where it has been implemented.

The administration opposes the bill “because it would impair the agency’s ability to manage our national forest system lands and resources in a safe, effective and efficient way,” she said.

Moreover, the bill, which would both prohibit the agency from implementing the 2005 rule and require county commissioners to sign off on changes to OHV access, could hamper the Forest Service from enforcing public safety regulations such as speed, load and weight limits, closures during forest fires, and prohibitions on operating a motor vehicle carelessly and recklessly, she said. In addition, without the travel management rule, other forest decisions could be affected due to the impacts of OHVs on endangered species, she said.

However, while “the rule requires a broad spectrum of interested and affected citizens to be able to provide their input and be involved … this has not been the case” in the Wallowa-Whitman, Weldon said.

“The Forest Service should have fostered much better collaboration in developing our travel management plan in eastern Oregon,” she said.

The George W. Bush administration planning rule was crafted after OHV use had more than doubled between 1982 and 2000 and the machines had become more adept at traveling off established trails. It requires forests to publish maps specifying what trails are open to which vehicles and when.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking member, said the Walden bill could require the agency to conduct costly re-evaluations of travel rules to ensure they are backed by county commissioners. Weldon agreed.

“I just think this legislation is so encompassing that the rest of the country then has to follow the dictates based on the situation in your area,” Grijalva said to McClure, the county commissioner. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

McClure said that he was unsure how the bill would affect completed plans but that the legislation need not apply to them.

Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, a national motorized vehicle advocacy group, has not taken a position on Walden’s bill, said Executive Director Larry Smith.

The bill is strongly opposed by dozens of environmental groups. A letter last week led by WildEarth Guardians said passage of Walden’s bill would mean “road signs will not be installed, maps showing the public where the roads and trails are located will not be printed, and roads that are eroding and causing drinking water pollution and harming fish populations will not be fixed.”

The Forest Service yesterday also opposed H.R. 4283, by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), saying it would “place an undue financial burden on the public for the operation of a private enterprise.”

Simpson’s bill would allow the use of maintenance equipment and the replacement of some old and potentially hazardous energy facilities at the River of No Return Lodge in Smith Gulch on the Salmon River in Idaho, according to Simpson.

Once amended at markup, the bill will have been crafted “with the sentiments … in mind” of both the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society, Simpson said.

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