Conservation groups took legal action today to stop off-road vehicles from destroying parts of the Stanislaus National Forest. The groups are seeking a court order forcing officials at the national forest to close roads and trails that damage streams, pristine roadless areas and habitat for rare species. Among the affected wildlife are owls, hawks, and the only species of turtle native to California. The groups filed the legal challenge in federal district court in Sacramento.
The Stanislaus is a popular forest destination area in the Sierra Nevada mountains, offering exceptional opportunities for hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. The travel plan gives the green light to noisy and highly destructive dirt bikes, all terrain vehicles, and other off-road vehicles to cross into unroaded areas, fragile streams and meadows. All told, the decision opens 136 miles of unauthorized off-road trails and 67 miles of dirt roads that were previously closed to the public.
“Everyone has the right to enjoy the forest, but nobody has the right to abuse it. Before opening up new areas to off-road vehicles, the Forest Service needs to close existing roads and trails that are destroying forest resources,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin.
A long-standing “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in the Stanislaus has allowed all-terrain vehicles and dirt bike motorcycles to carve steep routes up rutted hillsides and across forest streams while forest officials looked the other way. These illegal routes cause hillsides to erode when it rains. Sediment carried in runoff buries fish eggs in streams, destroys meadows and wetlands, and causes other ecological damage.
In the 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Carter ordered the Forest Service to better protect plants, water, and wildlife from off-road vehicles and to close areas damaged by off-road vehicles, but Forest Service officials delayed putting in place needed protections in the Stanislaus. In addition, the Forest Service has an over $50 million road and trail budget shortfall, meaning that it cannot afford to maintain the existing system of roads and trails, much less over 200 miles of additional roads and trails. In spite of this, the Forest Service issued the new travel plan in November 2009 which guarantees continued destruction of the forest.