"Trail Closed." We've all seen the signs at one time or another, and sightings seem to have become more frequent in recent years. It's no secret that our public lands-be they parks, monuments, forests, or recreation areas-are under more pressure than ever from a variety of competing interests, including environmental groups seeking to restrict or forbid vehicular access on public lands.
And now, more than ever, is the time to get educated on the subject and get involved in the fight to preserve motorized access to our public lands.
What follows in these pages is a guide to understanding the various pieces of federal legislation that affect vehicular access and the agencies charged with enforcing them. We also review current land-use policies of each federal agency, and list some current pieces of currently pending federal legislation that could impact future access. Finally, we'll pass along some tips for getting involved and joining the fight to keep public lands open and accessible for all outdoor recreationists. We've also got a comprehensive list of accessible public lands, along with complete contact information for the regional offices of the relevant federal agencies.
For now, let's start by covering the three biggest pieces of federal legislation that directly affect motorized access to public lands:
What It Is: The Wilderness Act of 1964 established a framework whereby Congress may permanently protect land that is essentially undisturbed, retains a primeval character, without permanent improvements and generally appears to have been only affected primarily by the forces of nature. The lands become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now encompasses nearly 110 million acres. A majority of the wilderness areas are in national parks, while the most of the other lands are within national forests and fish/wildlife preserves. Lands officially designated as "Wilderness" are closed to all motorized vehicles and mechanical forms of transportation, including mountain bikes. "Wilderness Study Areas" (WSAs) are lands that have been designated as having wilderness characteristics, potentially making them eligible for the wilderness designation. Federal agencies manage the lands so as to protect these characteristics until Congress ultimately decides their final status. There is no timeline for making a decision and legislation must be enacted to finalize the process.
How It Affects You: It's pretty self-evident. Any public lands designated as "wilderness" are closed to motorized recreation, period. To cite one recent example, hundreds of miles of previously accessible trails in the Owyhee Canyonlands of Idaho were closed to vehicular access after a recent Wilderness designation (see below).
Recent Legislation: On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into the law H.R. 146, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which designated more than 2 million acres of Wilderness in nine states. The designations include areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierra in California, Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in Idaho, Mt. Hood in Oregon, and Zion National Park in Utah. Some roads and trails were excluded from the wilderness designations and therefore remain available to OHV enthusiasts, but others did not receive protection.