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New 'Wild Lands' policy blasted at congressional hearing

But will it stop persistent conservationists?

The U.S. Interior Department's new "Wild Lands" land-use policy was sharply criticized during a congressional hearing on March 1, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) reports. The policy could close millions of acres of federal land to responsible motorized recreation.

OPINION: Now is not the time for overkill

Mt. Hood National Forest recently made a bold move when they re-wrote their Off-Highway Vehicle Travel Law. The OHV policy on the Forest has changed from "all roads and areas being open to motorized vehicles unless posted closed” to "all roads and areas are closed to motor vehicles unless designated open.”

With the substitution of two words and the swipe of a pen, access on gravel roads around Mt. Hood went from 2,312 miles to a mere 146. This spring, the Forest Service will release a map indicating which roads you can use. Don't expect it to be very big. No telling how the annual car rally will be routed.

And where were you when all the meetings about this were going on? Consider yourself hoodwinked both figuratively and literally. This is a prime example of your tax payer dollars at work and you didn't even know it?

If you're a northwest dual sport enthusiast with nothing to do in the fall, you were more likely poking around on FaceBook reading all the great press about two gentlemen who crafted their own version of a 2010 Washington State Back Country Discovery Route. Once complete, a free GPS file was released, a feature movie was produced for sale on DVD and Butler maps cashed-in producing a waterproof folding map of the route. It's winter now and the swell of anticipation for melted snow is immense. You can bet, where perhaps a few hundred people travelled last year, literally thousands are planning to do so this year.

Continued excessive promotion of this route via the internet, movie showings and word-of-mouth will certainly catch the ears of tree hugging conservationists eager to lock down any area that may be getting more than its fair share of light traffic. And these people have a way of never going away once they get started. Several images used in the DVD show a Land Rover navigating its way over a severely rutted road, just the fuel conservationists look for when pointing the finger at a potential shut-down.

Can it happen on a state level if it doesn't on a national level? You bet. In fact Mt. Hood is just one example where it already did.

For those who live in Puget Sound, in the last five years you've lost access to Stousell Creek Road and Jack Pass just to name a few. The two girl friends in Olympia who pushed through the Wild Sky Wilderness initiative in 2008 made it next to impossible to survey, permit and rebuild FS 63 north of Index after it washed out in 2006. It's nowhere near being fixed and the red tape, jump-through-hoops mandates go on and on.

For tree huggers who like to hike, this sort of activity also blocks their access to the forest. Just how far away from the trail head did you want to park your car? Ask anyone who has tried to make an ascent on Glacier Peak lately, where climbers must hike in an additional 10 miles just to get to the trailhead due to a long and lengthy road rebuild stifled by every conservationist trick in the book, similar to the escapade that went on for five years before the Mountain Loop Highway finally reopened a few years ago.

When areas get designated as 'Wilderness,' vehicle access ends for everyone. We're getting closer to the day when a whole lot of card-carrying REI members will all get to convene at one of three trail heads left on any given sunny weekend along the I-90 corridor. For dual sport motorcycle enthusiasts, you might want to starting working on your pavement chops.

Providing free GPS files to the masses probably isn't going to bode well by increasing traffic significantly on the roads that are the next to come on the radar of conservationist groups. Creating a circus-like marketing push on top of that surely won't help either.

I love the Northwest, I love riding in it, I love sharing what I know about it. I'd hate to see my favorite back roads get shut down on either a national or state-by-state basis. The cards are on the table, let's deal with them correctly.

Tom Mehren/Winter 2011

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter argued that, with the new policy, the Interior Department "has circumvented the sovereignty of states and the will of the public." Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said that "by bureaucratic fiat, one branch of government has overstepped and overreached and has devalued the rights of the states and the citizens." And Dennis Smith, a commissioner in Jackson County, Ore., said the Wild Lands policy "should be reversed in its entirety."

They joined several others in testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources on "The Impact of the Administration's Wild Lands Order on Jobs and Economic Growth."

Robert Abbey, director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), defended the Wild Lands policy, testifying that it "restores balance to the BLM's multiple-use management of the public lands in accordance with applicable law."

Courts have ruled that the BLM inventory of public land must include "inventory of wilderness values and that BLM must consider those values in its land-use planning," Abbey said.

On December 22, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed Secretarial Order 3310 creating the Wild Lands land-use designation that essentially allows BLM officials to manage public land as if it had received a Wilderness designation from Congress, but without requiring congressional approval. This new policy is widely expected to restrict or eliminate responsible off-highway vehicle (OHV) use in the affected areas.

A Wilderness designation is one of the strictest forms of public land management. Once Congress designates an area as Wilderness, nearly all forms of non-pedestrian recreation are illegal. The AMA supports appropriate Wilderness designations that meet the criteria established by Congress in 1964, but anti-access advocates have been abusing the legislative process to ban responsible OHV recreation on public land.

Otter testified that the new Wild Lands policy places a higher priority on protection of "wilderness characteristics" than on multiple uses of land. The drastic change in public policy for public land "was done without public input," he said.

"Tourism and motorized recreation are important industries in Idaho," Otter testified. "Cross country, off-highway vehicle travel is not allowed in WSAs [Wilderness Study Areas] and, most assuredly, will not be allowed in Wild Lands. Due to repeated closures of roads and trails on federal lands, experience tells us that existing trails will be closed and no new trails for OHV travel will be authorized in LWCs [lands with wilderness characteristics] and areas designated 'Wild Lands.'

"The impact to motorized recreation in southern Idaho will be dramatic and, in turn, will impact Idaho's economy," he said.

Herbert noted that Secretarial Order 3310 "has undone years of collaborative and costly work between county officials, environmental organizations, natural resource industries, citizens and our local Bureau of Land Management offices as they have worked together to craft BLM resource management plans."

He added: "This action usurps the authority of Congress, and for the first time ever, creates a favored category [wilderness characteristics] for multiple-use management, creates new levels of centralized bureaucratic review, contains vague, inconsistent and overly broad definitions of Wild Lands, and lacks clarity as to what is wilderness and what is subject to multiple use and development."

Smith noted that his county and surrounding counties in Oregon have unemployment rates of 15 percent to 20 percent, and the Wild Lands policy could be devastating for those counties.

"Secretarial Order 3310 promises to make an intolerable situation even worse by locking up even more BLM land, creating de facto Wilderness areas without congressional action or oversight, and without the support of local communities that will be adversely impacted," he said.

Following the hearing, Ed Moreland, AMA senior vice president for government relations, urged all concerned riders to contact their federal lawmakers and ask them to oppose the Wild Lands policy because it usurps congressional authority over public land-use designations.

To contact your federal lawmakers to oppose the Wild Lands policy, go to

"With the new Wild Lands policy, anti-access advocates and the administration are now seeking an end-run around Congress that could have far-reaching negative implications for the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM," Moreland said.

Story provided by the American Motorcyclist Association/Winter 2011

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