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After years of chatter, forest may release OHV plan

If you got a sense of deja vu reading last week's Union Democrat story on off-highway vehicle (OHV) use on the Stanislaus National Forest, don't be surprised.

Headlined "OHV use in forest part of the debate," that story was only the latest of dozens dating back more than a decade on efforts to come up with a policy on use of four-wheelers, dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles on the 900,000-acre forest.

"Forest's off highway plan doesn't please all," read the headline atop a July 1996 story on an early Stanislaus plan to limit OHV use. That plan, apparently appealed into oblivion, disappeared.

But it doesn't mean the forest folks stopped talking about OHVs.

"Off-roaders air gripes, suggestions," a 1999 story announced. "Trails, enforcement top off-roaders concerns," we reported in 2000. "Clash mars forest off-road meeting," came in 2002. "Public asked for OHV input," we trumpeted in 2005, as if citizens' views had never been asked before.

Those 2005 meetings, it turns out, were the beginning of the Forest Service's latest effort to gain consensus and set policy in this volatile arena. Now — two full years later — the Stanislaus may be within a month of releasing a "designated route document," which is a list of roads and trails open to OHVs. It's what Sue Warren, the forest's route designation coordinator, called "a starting point."

It will coincide with conclusion of a new survey on who visits the forest and what they are doing there. The results of that 2007 survey could be released after the first of the year, when they will be compared to a similar survey done in 2004.

Public comment and environmental review of the "route document" will follow. Options and alternatives will be considered as the five-step adoption process winds down. A final decision on a trail plan, last week's story reported, could come by the end of 2008.

Which is about a year later than the completion date given by the Forest Service a year ago, when four more public input meetings were held.

Still with us? Then brace yourself, because appeals, court challenges or administration changes that come with election of a new president could undo everything.

In an editorial published a year ago, we commended the Stanislaus Forest on renewing its resolve to come up with a permanent, marked OHV trail system throughout the forest. We agreed that the growing spaghetti-like network of more than 2,000 miles of often-spontaneously created trails was untenable and could lead to erosion, drainage problems and resource damage. We even pointed out that the year-long time frame outlined in 2006 "allows plenty of time for public comment."

As is too often the case with federal government projects, however, the much-needed OHV plan has become something of a highway mirage, receding as it is approached. It's become part of a smoke-and-mirrors world where "starting points" are reached two years into a plan and action falls victim to bureaucracy and process.

Paralysis by analysis, it has been called.

But it need not claim Stanislaus National Forest OHV plan. With off-road use rising significantly on the Stanislaus and national forests throughout the country, OHV enthusiasts and others agree that a well-defined plan is needed.

Further delays can only deepen controversy and increase the chance of the environmental damage the Forest Service has repeatedly told us will occur if nothing is done.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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