The U.S. Forest Service’s Travel Management Rule has been controversial — even before it went into effect in 2005.
Environmental groups sue the Forest Service when they feel the agency hasn’t implemented the travel rule strongly enough. While off-highway vehicles groups sue when they feel the agency has implemented the travel rule too rigidly.
The roots of the travel management rule go back to a presidential order signed by President Nixon in 1972 to regulate the use of OHVs on public lands.
The Travel Management Rule
The Forest Service is Part of the Department of Agriculture. After much public comment, the Department of Agriculture’s Travel Management Rule went into effect nationally in November 2005.
The rule required the designation of roads, trails and off-road areas open to motor vehicle use and, as later amended, prohibited motor vehicle use outside of these designated roads, trails and areas.
In the rule, the department argued that a travel rule was needed because the number and power of off-highway use vehicles had increased rapidly causing a proliferation of new “user-created” trails on national forest land.
The rule stated that these non-engineered trails, along with generally unrestricted cross-country travel, were causing soil erosion, affecting water quality and disturbing wildlife.
Although OHV use was considered a legitimate use in the travel rule, the department stated that a travel system was necessary in order to both protect the environment and to segregate motorized vehicle users from those visitors seeking quiet and solitude.
The agency argued in the rule that a consistent policy was needed for all national forests. At the same time, the agency stated that designations of motorized roads, trails and areas for general off-road use should be made with local input.
The department noted that the travel management rule followed legally from two executive orders.
Executive Order 11644, signed by President Nixon in 1972, established policies to ensure that the use of OHV vehicles on public lands protected natural resources, promoted the safety of all users and minimized conflicts among the various users of public lands.
Executive Order 11989, signed by President Carter in 1978, exempted fire, military, emergency or law enforcement vehicles from the rule when those vehicles were being used for emergency or national defense purposes.
The order also closed all areas to motorized travel not specifically designated as open to off road use.
As the result of a court order in 2014, the department amended the rule in 2015 to require designation of roads, trails and areas on National Forest lands for over-snow vehicle use as well.
Local environmental review
In December 2006, one year after the national travel management rule went into effect, the Forest Service closed Plumas National Forest to cross-country motor vehicle travel, including on user-created routes.
The Forest Service then asked for public comment as to which of the user-created routes should be left open to public use.
In April 2007, after public input, the agency decided that 410 miles of user-created routes should be left open to public use and be added to the official forest motorized travel system.
In January 2008, the agency began preparing an environmental impact statement concerning off-highway motorized travel in Plumas National Forest.
In August 2010, after more public input, the agency released its “record of decision” in regards to off-highway travel.
Plumas National Forest lawsuit
In March 2015, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Plumas National Forest’s motorized travel management plan.
On its website, the foundation describes itself as “a donor-supported national nonprofit that fights for private property rights, individual liberty, free enterprise, limited government and a balanced approach to environmental protection.”
The foundation gave its interpretation of the lawsuit in the Portola and Quincy newspapers April 12 and in Chester and Greenville newspapers April 19.
The foundation lawsuit states that Plumas National Forest contained approximately 4,137 miles of designated roads, 130 miles of motorized trails and 1,107 miles of user-created routes prior to the travel management rule in 2005.
Tahoe National Forest lawsuit
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed an earlier lawsuit against Tahoe National Forest in 2012.
In February 2016, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the foundation and other plaintiffs in the case.
The court’s ruling stated: “The Forest Service’s assessment of the environmental impacts of each alternative was detailed and thorough” and “the plaintiffs failed to show how considering additional alternatives would have fostered more informed decision making. …”
Where things stand locally
The 9th Circuit Court is the same court that is hearing the foundation’s Plumas National Forest lawsuit.
The Sierra Access Coalition, the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, Butte County, Plumas County and two individuals are plaintiffs in the Plumas National Forest lawsuit.
Sherrie Thrall, Plumas County supervisor, said the biggest thing for the county was a lack of coordination by Plumas National Forest with the county.
Thrall said, “We didn’t feel that they adequately addressed any of the comments they received during the NEPA process. We felt like we were given the brush off.”
Lee Anne Schramel, Plumas National Forest public affairs officer, said that she couldn’t comment about the lawsuit because litigation is ongoing, except to say: “We are continuing to look for trail opportunities for all our users, motorized and unmotorized.”
The Department of Agriculture’s Travel Management Rule is part of the National Registry. The rule can be located online; search “travel management rule national registry.”
American Trails, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to foster cooperation and communication among all trail users, analyzed the rule in 2006, which can be found by searching “travel management rule american trails.”