Enforcing forest travel

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board February 10, 2012 04:49 pm

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest hasn't unveiled its long-awaited (and, for some people, long-feared) travel management plan, but already we've had a glimpse at how the new limits on motor vehicle use might be enforced.

This glimpse was provided by the man who is largely responsible for that pending plan.

That's Dale Bosworth. He was chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 2001-07. In 2004 he cited "unmanaged recreation" as one of the four biggest threats to national forests. As a result, all forests are required to write travel plans that govern where motor vehicles can go (the plans don't affect snowmobiles).

Earlier this week The Oregonian published an op-ed written by Bosworth, who retired in 2007 after a 41-year career with the Forest Service.

Bosworth's topic is how the Forest Service should enforce the new — or pending, in the case of the Wallowa-Whitman — restrictions on motor vehicles.

We agree with Bosworth that Forest Service officials should be ready to enforce the limits.

Without enforcement the agency's considerable investments in money and time (work on the Wallowa-Whitman's plan started almost five years ago) would be for naught.

We don't support one of Bosworth's specific suggestions, though.

He wrote in his op-ed: "The first solution is for Congress to implement a standard visible identification system for OHVs on public lands. These IDs should be highly visible, such as a plate or large decal. Illegal riders enjoy a veil of anonymity because they wear helmets and Oregon's current credit card-sized IDs are too small to be seen on fast-moving, dirt-covered vehicles."

Bosworth is focusing on the wrong thing here.

The purpose of the travel management plans is to delineate where OHVs can go. Thus the vital part of these plans, obviously, is the accompanying maps that show which roads and trails are open to motor vehicles. These maps are so important, in fact, that the Wallowa-Whitman won't start enforcing its plan until maps are available to the public.

Given that, Bosworth's description of OHV riders' "anonymity" is puzzling. The issue isn't whether riders have the proper decal, it's whether they're riding where they're legally allowed to be.

Surely Forest Service law enforcement agents don't need a decal to recognize a four-wheeler or motorcycle from a bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle, or to determine whether the rider is on an open trail or a closed one.

There's no reason to require riders to obtain (read: buy) a decal. Besides which, as Bosworth noted, Oregon already has its own ID tags for OHVs.

Bosworth's suggestion that the Forest Service impose a set of fines for violations that's the same on every national forest is reasonable.

So is his proposal to increase fines for repeat violators. The example he cites, which is in effect in some states, has a $150 penalty for the first offense, $300 for the second, and $500 for the third and subsequent violations.

Although we must of course reserve judgment until we see the Wallowa-Whitman's plan, we hope it achieves the delicate balance between preserving OHV travel as the legitimate use of public lands that it is, and reducing the erosion and other harmful effects such vehicles can cause.

In his concluding paragraph, Bosworth writes that by following the rules now, riders can help prevent "more drastic actions tomorrow, like limiting access to federal lands."

Travel plans already limit access. But we agree with Bosworth about wanting to avoid "more drastic actions."