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By: Robert Janis

New Mexico OHV Alliance

Know the Rules to Successfully Challenge Road and Trail Closures--A Case Study

OHV recreationists are well aware of United States Forest Service Travel Management Plans. It is this procedure which ultimately determines what trails and roads can be used in U.S. Forest Service managed lands.

Many OHV groups and individuals who happen to spend their Saturdays or Sundays enjoying the trails of the great outdoors may be in jeopardy of losing access to trails if they do not do a better job understanding the Travel Management Plan process and take steps early to challenge bad plans.

Joanne Spivack knows. She is one of the founders of the New Mexico Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance. She was a past president of the organization and currently Special Projects Coordinator of the group. She and her husband, Mark Werkmeister, also a founder of NMOHVA who also served as the group’s president, forced the repeal of a Travel Management Plan in a National Forest ranger district near Albuquerque, New Mexico. For those of you who may have tried to fight a Travel Management Plan in your region of the country, you know how much of a big deal this is. For those of you who are not aware, you should be. “It’s a real big deal! It is unheard of for an OHV group to win an appeal,” said Spivack. “First of all, OHV groups don’t appeal. They don’t know how to. They don’t understand the process.”

Spivack explained that in 2005 the United States Forest Service issued a new rule that said that every national forest in the country had to designate where people could use motorized vehicles. Moreover, any land of a U.S. Forest that was open to cross country travel had to end it. This meant that all motorized vehicle use would be limited to designated routes.

According to Spivack, a shocking part of the Travel Management Plan was that it told Forest Districts that any route that was not designated would automatically close by default. This would be the case even if the National Forest didn’t know that the route or trail existed, and even if they had not analyzed it to see if it was causing any damage.

Although some may think that there is not much that a regular OHV enthusiast can do to ultimately challenge Travel Management Plans, Spivack says that there is. Moreover, she said that if you do your homework and start early monitoring the process, you can successfully challenge a TMP.

Spivack explained that all Travel Management Plans processes are performed under the National Environmental Policy Act also known as NEPA. “They are a very precise set of rules that are imposed on the Forest Service concerning how they have to do the decision making and part of that process mandates public participation,” she said.

She and her husband’s challenges were targeted at the Mountainair Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest. “The Mountainair Ranger District., like most of New Mexico, is an open forest,” she explained. “So basically that means it is open to cross country travel and you can go anywhere short of a wilderness designated area. You don’t have to stay on roads and trails. The Travel Management Plan nationwide would end cross country travel and limit motorized use to some network of trails and roads less than what people are using now. So we knew we were definitely up against a reduction in access”.

On most occasions Travel Management Plans are decided for an entire National Forest at one time. However, in this case the Cibola National Forest decided to do their Travel Management Plan in one ranger district at a time. So each ranger district had to prepare its own Environmental Assessment also known as an EA. “An EA is a miniature Environmental Impact Statement or EIS,” explained Spivack. “The rules for it are quite a bit more lenient than for the EIS. The EA comes out as a draft, and there is a public comment period during which the public can write in and make their comments on the EA and what is being proposed. Then, the way the mandated process works under the law is that the forest service has to look at the comments and consider them and revise the plan if it wants to or needs to and then it comes out with what is called a ‘Final EA.’ At that point we look at it and determine whether or not they (the Forest Service) paid any attention to fixing the things that were mistakes that were identified during the public comments. We looked at the final, and discovered that they didn’t fix anything. At that point the only option left is to file an appeal.”

Spivack pointed out that the process allows 30 days for the filing of an appeal. After that the Forest Service has 45 days to respond to the appeal.

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