Want to stir some controversy?

Try closing a few national forest roads previously open to four-wheelers, all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and the like.

Off-highway users are vocal, united and proprietary. Even thinking about shutting trails they have used for years is risky business.

But to its credit and because it's required by law the Stanislaus National Forest is ready to consider doing just that.

Starting Monday and over the two weeks that follow, the forest will host five meetings one each at the Calaveras, Mi-Wok and Groveland ranger stations and two at forest headquarters in Sonora on establishing a permanent and marked off-highway trail system throughout the forest.

This means that many miles of OHV trails now threading through the Stanislaus will almost certainly be closed.

Now, according to forest officials, such trails are like "spaghetti" on maps. "They're everywhere," said Sue Warren, the forest's public service program area leader.

Not only that, but this sprawling network of more than 2,000 miles is growing: Off-roaders can now leave existing tracks and blaze new trails without fear of legal sanctions.

Lacking the manpower to police and maintain such a system, the forest is open to erosion, drainage problems and resource damage created by the sheer mileage of dirt tracks.

The answer, say Warren and other forest officials, is a defined, manageable and marked system of trails. A very preliminary draft map of such a system will debut during this month's meetings. Under the forest's present schedule, such an OHV trail could be adopted by early 2008.

The Stanislaus is not alone in this effort: All 18 California national forests, pursuant to new U.S. Forest Service policies on off-roaders, are doing the same thing. The policies are aimed not only at reducing damage, but eliminating conflicts between OHVs and those looking for a more quiet, isolated forest experience.

It won't be easy.

Forest efforts to establish an off-road trail system have waxed and waned over the past 15 years.

Meetings have often been contentious, with off-roaders often accusing the Forest Service of indefinitely delaying decisions and of a bias against them.

But there is cause for encouragement:

? The adoption schedule spans more than a year, allowing plenty of time for comment and review.

? The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, the area's foremost environmental organization, has named 37 environmentally damaging trails. But it has recommended that only a "small percentage" of them be closed.

? Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn less than two years ago successfully brokered an acceptable OHV plan for the 8,700-acre Interface area near Arnold, which for better than a decade was subject of a nasty battle between homeowners and off-roaders.

Through cooperation and compromise, a long-needed system of designated and marked OHV trails can emerge from the process that begins next week.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.