Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

A federal judge has ruled the Stanislaus National Forest must do more to prevent environmental damage posed by off-road vehicles.

Sacramento U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller, in a ruling published Friday, upheld the central argument of a suit filed in August 2010 by three environmental groups: the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Wilderness Society, each headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The organizations claimed the U.S. Forest Service's 2009 Travel Management Plan fails to minimize damages like erosion, trails cutting into streams and disruption of habitat for threatened goshawks, spotted owls, Western pond turtles and other species. The ruling, however, rejected an additional claim that the Forest Service didn't adequately address alternatives to the adopted plan.

"Our center isn't opposed to off-road vehicle use but it should be steered to places where it causes the least conflict with water, wildlife and quiet recreation," said CSERC Executive Director John Buckley, adding "turtles can't simply run across the road and get out of the way when an all-terrain vehicle is coming."

The travel plan opened 137 miles of previously unauthorized roads to use by off-highway vehicles such as ATVs and dirtbikes. It also re-opened 67 miles of roads that had been closed to four-wheelers.

The ruling is a blow to OHV enthusiasts, who argued in public hearings prior to the plan's adoption that even more of the forest should have been opened up. Appeals to the Forest Service decision to close off some upper-elevation trails throughout the winter months were filed by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment.

Concerns were raised that limiting OHV access could hurt tourism and the economy. Those appeals were denied, along with one by the Merced Dirt Riders, a group of Central Valley-based OHV users who believed some roads were being closed off unnecessarily.

TuCARE Executive Director Melinda Fleming and Merced Dirt Riders President Michael Damaso couldn't be reached before presstime for comment.

Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski called the plan a "balanced" one while taking heat from various angles during the public-hearing phase. The Forest Service has declined to comment on ongoing litigation as a matter of policy.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15 in which the court may decide to temporarily halt access to the newly added trails included in the plan. Those roads will otherwise remain open until the courts, Forest Service and the plaintiffs work out a remedy to the plan's shortcomings, a process Buckley said he expects to take months.

"It took us more than two years in the courts to get to this point," he said. "We'll be strategizing the next two to three weeks with (co-plaintiffs) to come forward with a truly balanced outcome."