Union Democrat staff

Tuolumne County supervisors, in a split vote and at the 11th hour, have joined a crowd now appealing the Stanislaus National Forest's new OHV Plan.

Otherwise known as the Motorized Travel Management Plan, the document has to date drawn 11 appeals from environmental organizations, off-road enthusiasts and other special interest groups.

The board voted 3-2 to file its own specific and narrow appeal just hours before Tuesday's midnight deadline.

Supervisors Dick Pland, Teri Murrison and John Gray voted to contest a plan provision that would not allow parking more than "one vehicle length" off forest roads and ask reversal of certain winter road closures specified in the document. It also said the U.S. Forest Service failed to address possible conflicts between the OHV rules and "local land use plans, policies and controls."

Supervisors Liz Bass and Paolo Maffei voted against the appeal.

The board split mirrors public reaction to the plan, which has been roundly slammed by both sides since its release in early December. OHV enthusiasts have contended that far too few roads are open under the plan while environmentalists insist that far too few are closed.

Controversy notwithstanding, it is hard to fault the process.

The Stanislaus National Forest staff spent six years putting the document together. It was the subject of numerous public meetings, and drew 841 letters cataloging 1,890 comments, each of which was addressed in the project's environmental study.

Every effort was made to get input and every opportunity to do so given. Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski described the plan as "the most balanced decision I could have made."

The near-equal infuriation of off-roaders and environmentalists shows Skalski might be right.

The plan's key ingredients:

• All cross-country travel would be prohibited.

• Nearly 137 miles of previously unauthorized roads would be added to forest OHV system.

• Some 400 miles now open to OHVs would be restricted to street-legal vehicles only.

• Ninety-three miles of road now accessible only to highway-legal vehicles would open up to OHVs.

Some of the appeals filed are voluminous, and many of the concerns expressed are genuine.

One filed jointly by the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, the Wilderness Society, the local chapter of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups is 64 pages.

CSERC Executive Director John Buckley, who says this version was "scaled down," contends that the forest OHV plan will do significant damage to wildlife habitat and that the forest has for more than a decade failed to enforce its own policy against driving off designated routes.

The Tuolumne County's board's appeal, in contrast, is an economic three pages.

The one-vehicle-length parking rule it questions seems arbitrary and inconvenient for campers packing gear into nearby sites. Stretching that limit to 100 feet, as proposed by the board majority, seems reasonable.

The winter closure challenges made by supervisors also warrants a second look. Keeping certain paved and hard-surfaced roads open during the off-season, will indeed create more opportunities for late-season hunting and early season fishing.

The above issues notwithstanding, the Stanislaus Forest staff did an admirable job balancing resource protection and recreation. Adjustments made to the OHV plan during the appeal process when combined with future amendments should make it an effective, workable policy for years to come.