July 18, 2008

Motorized Access to Forest Roads May Be Cut 55%


National forest planners are proposing to close motorized access to 55% of the roads in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

The plan is designed to protect the ecology of the sprawling northern forest, but some motor sports enthusiasts and outdoorsmen say they will lose access to many remote areas.

"I don't know if hunters or fishermen realize the impact that this will have on their form of recreation," said John Schnorr, executive director of the Wisconsin Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which has closely followed developments.

Starting Saturday, the public has an additional 30 days to comment, and as more details emerge, the plan is likely to once again fuel longstanding differences over the use of public land.

The plan will reduce the roads open to cars, trucks, motorcycles and ATVs from 4,657 miles to 2,080 miles. Another option calls for 2,158 miles to be open.

The changes, which will go into effect in January, will affect low-use roads. Most require four-wheel drive for access and are often little more than fingers of vegetation poking through the forest.

The roads may have been constructed for logging decades ago, or built on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, but are no longer maintained.

It is these kinds of isolated roads where activity increases in certain periods -- in the summer, for example, for motor-sports users, or during hunting season.

The Forest Service held five public meetings in northern Wisconsin in October 2007 on the closings. The agency received another 175 comments afterward.

Lack of information

But all parties agree that the public at large seems to know little about the plan.

"I don't know if it's apathy or general lack of information," observed Schnorr.

Tony Erba, deputy forest supervisor for the Chequamegon Nicolet, said that the agency did not get a single comment from an environmental group, perhaps because the agency's recommendations lean in their favor.

Meanwhile, "the sportsmen have not been fully engaging," Erba said.

"It might be because they don't come into the forest until fall for hunting, and they live in some other part of the state."

The practical effect of the changes: People will be able to walk or ski on the restricted roads to gain access to interior portions of the forest. But they will no longer be able to drive vehicles of any type on them.

Erba said that in the first year, the agency will stress education, but eventually scofflaws could be ticketed.

Reductions in road access are being driven by federal regulations that went into effect in 2005, requiring managers of the 193 million acres of forests and grasslands to tailor local plans to govern where motorized vehicles are permitted.

Dale Bosworth, former chief of the Forest Service, who retired in 2007 after 41 years at the agency, said before his departure that unmanaged recreation -- especially involving off-highway vehicles -- was one of the four leading threats to national forests and grasslands.

Roads by wetlands, water

In the 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet, most shuttered roads are near wetlands and waterways, Erba said.

"If you put a wheeled vehicle in there, you can create ruts where water can channel and cause erosion," he said.

But there are other environmental factors, said Ed Harvey Jr., chairman of the Conservation Congress, which advises the state Department of Natural Resources on issues.

"This is going to have a huge effect on deer hunters," Harvey said. "People complain about deer numbers -- that we need to reduce the deer population -- and this is not to going to help."

Other than what he described as the "super fit," Harvey said hunters will not be able to travel into remote areas of the forest.

Road access will be reviewed annually and residents can then ask the forest service to open some roads, Erba said.

"The whole root of concern," said Schnorr, "is that the forest service has assured us that this will be a dynamic document that will be determined on an annual basis.

"I just didn't fall off a turnip truck yesterday," he said. "It's going to be hard to make changes to this."

The plan does little to change the amount of ATV use permitted in the forest. One alternative would add 42 miles in the fall.

"We're still trying to digest it," said Randy Harden, president of the Wisconsin All-Terrain Vehicle Association.

Advocates of mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing generally favor the plan.

Ron Bergin, executive director of the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association, said that most biking trails are in specified areas of the forest and would not be affected by the change.

On the Web

To view the Forest Service plan and to comment, go to www.fs.fed.us/r9/cnnf/rec/tmr/.

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