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The SEMA Action Network - Road Closed

Posted in Features on November 1, 2010
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Photographers: Dale Grange

Despite the efforts by recreationalists to responsibly access and use public lands, encountering a "road closed" sign is happening more and more around the country. Here is what every off-roader needs to know:

Road closures and other threats to off-highway vehicle (OHV) access typically take form in federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress or regulations issued by the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The most onerous threat is when land is designated as "Wilderness." This is virtually the strictest form of public land management since nearly all forms of non-pedestrian recreation are illegal. No mechanized equipment is allowed (including mountain bikes), and trails are limited to people who travel by foot or horseback. For everyone else, you can gaze at the Wilderness from afar.

Wilderness does serve an important environmental purpose-protecting plants, animals, and America's natural heritage is of the utmost importance. But the real question is how much land needs such a restrictive designation, and if there will be access allowed through those areas. When Congress enacted the Wilderness Act in 1964, it set aside 9-million acres of land. There are now about 110-million acres and Congress may soon add another 20- or 30-million acres.

Only Congress can designate Wilderness by enacting legislation into law. There are some compromise OHV-friendly solutions when considering such bills. One is to "cherry-stem" existing roads and trails so they do not receive the designation, thereby permitting travel in a Wilderness area. Another is creating a "Back Country" designation that would permit motorized activity on certain lands while simultaneously protecting the environment.

In recent years, the anti-OHV lobby has pursued scores of Wilderness bills in an effort to lock-up as much land as possible. When these bills are rushed through Congress, however, there is little opportunity to cherry-stem existing roads and trails. In fact, the Wilderness designation may be an intentional means to force responsible OHV recreationalists off public land.

In 2009, Congress combined more than 160 separate Wilderness measures into one gigantic bill called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. In a single act, the law created nearly 2.2-million acres of new Wilderness in nine states, including areas in and around Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierras in California, Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands in Idaho, Mt. Hood in Oregon, Zion National Park in Utah, and the Sabinoso Wilderness in New Mexico. The OHV community is still identifying roads and trails that were swept-up in the closures, for example, the Mt. Canaan Trail in Utah.

More threats are on the horizon. The current Congress is considering dozens of other Wilderness measures which, if combined into a single bill, could encompass as much as 25- or 30-million acres of land across the country! Scores of popular OHV trails could be closed.

Most of the "potential" Wilderness subject to legislation has already been sent aside by Congress as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). WSAs are millions of acres of federal lands that generally retain a primeval character, which may make them eligible for a future Wilderness designation, and the federal agencies manage them accordingly. It is important to note that Congress will "release" WSAs that do not meet the Wilderness criteria. In fact, many WSAs have roads, trails and other evidence of human activities which should nullify that particular area as Wilderness.

Canaan Mountain Sawmill Road (Utah)
The road was built about the turn of the last century for access to a saw mill at the top of Canaan Mountain in Utah near the Arizona border. For decades, it has been a popular recreation route with spectacular vistas of the "Grand Staircase" and Arizona Strip. In 1990, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ruled that Canaan Mountain had "Wilderness" characteristics and designated it as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA). The BLM then closed the road. Recreation groups, as well as Utah and Washington County, disputed the BLM's closure, noting that a WSA designation does not require closure of a motorized trail, and also challenged the BLM's authority to close the road. In 2009, the battle ended when Congress included the Canaan Mountain Wilderness, along with nearly 160 other measures in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. As a result, OHV access was then outlawed on almost 2.2-million acres of new Wilderness in nine states when the law took effect in March 2009.

Solutions for Maintaining OHV Access
Preserving America's natural heritage for future generations is vitally important and can be accomplished through managed care of the nation's public lands in a manner that balances protection and responsible recreational opportunities.

Some means by which government and users can accomplish this goal are:

•OHV policies that recognize the importance of vehicle-oriented recreation: Increased OHV use in recent years has provided the American public with the ability to enjoy public lands in record numbers.

•Case-by-case reviews of all WSAs to determine an appropriate designation which has widespread local community support. Decisions must be based, in part, on an inventory of all developments within the WSA including roads, trails, buildings, etc. to determine whether that area meets the Wilderness criteria.

•"Cherry-stemming" existing roads/trails, a process by which they are excluded from the Wilderness area and thereby can remain open to recreation.

•Creating a new designation called Back Country to supplement the Wilderness designation. Back Country would facilitate motorized recreation while still protecting the land. The designation would expand access and recreation opportunities to a large percentage of Americans who do not visit Wilderness areas including the very young, elderly and physically challenged.

•Relying on broad national guidelines combined with local management decision-making: It is important that local officials have authority to work with the public and state, federal and tribal government leaders to make appropriate decisions on OHV access.

•Involving the public in decision-making process: Government agencies should be required to seek the active participation of the public in the process of designating OHV access.

•Setting flexible timetables for various designations (Wilderness, OHV-use policy, etc.): The designation process is complex and may vary from forest-to-forest, or other federal land area. While there may be a uniform approach, the specifics must be dealt with at the local level according to the unique circumstances of each area.

•Incorporating certain "user-created" routes: By default, the OHV designation process places the onus on the OHV recreational community to identify routes that were created in recent years that have not yet been inventoried by the USFS or BLM ("user-created" routes). Many of these routes came into existence during "open" management and serve a legitimate need and purpose, and do not pose an environmental threat. In some cases, these uninventoried routes may even be more environmentally friendly and provide a better overall access solution than their inventoried counterparts.

•Setting defined vehicle classes and use authorizations: Vehicle classes need to be defined at the federal level so there is uniform application across the country when it comes to planning, mapping of roads/trails, etc.

The SEMA Action Network
The SEMA Action Network (SAN) is a partnership between enthusiasts, vehicle clubs, and members of the specialty automotive parts industry in the United States and Canada who have joined forces to promote hobby-friendly legislation and oppose unfair laws. With almost 40,000 members, 3-million contacts and an ability to reach 30-million enthusiasts through print and press, the SAN is the premier organization defending the rights of the vehicle hobby. The SAN is free to join with no obligations or commitments. No other organization brings such a comprehensive set of tools and resources to bear on this mission.

The current economic and legislative environment is emboldening governments to become more aggressive with their anti-auto hobby legislation. States are seeking new avenues for generating revenue and new ways of dictating what you can and cannot do with your vehicles. The message that government is sending is clear-the hobby needs the SEMA Action Network now more than ever. Enlist now in this fellowship of auto enthusiasts: Join the SAN at

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