For people who plan to go to the Feb. 20 meeting, preliminary grant applications are not online yet, but they are expected to be by March 6 and April 2. Everyone who wants to review and comment on the applications will be able to do so. The web address is http://olga.ohv.parks.ca.gov/egrams_ohmvr/user/home.aspx.

People will be able to submit electronic comments to the Stanislaus National Forest by emailing Miguel Macias at mmacias@fs.fed.us and cc'ing the state Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division at ohvinfo@parks.ca.gov . Written comments can also be snail-mailed to Miguel Macias, c/o Public Services, Stanislaus National Forest, 19777 Greenley Road, Sonora, CA 95370.

Chris Methot has been riding dirt bikes and other off-highway vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest since 1984, when he rode enduro events at Deer Creek.

Methot is 62 now, he lives outside Twain Harte and he still rides in the forest. Friday evening he took his buddy’s 2015 KTM 500 EXC dual sport, a plated, street legal dirt bike, out to Forest Road 3N99.

Saturday he rode his own 2014 KTM 500 EXC with two dirt bike buddies out Grant Ridge Road within view of the new Parrotts Ferry Bridge, where it crosses over the Stanislaus River as it fills New Melones Reservoir.

Methot said Monday he plans to go to a Feb. 20 public meeting with Stanislaus National Forest staff, where they hope to hear from people like him and a group he helped found, Stewards of Stanislaus.

Chuck James, a forest recreation ranger who works with off-highway vehicle users, said Monday he and others will be at the gathering to talk about grant applications for 2018-19. State grant funding for off-highway vehicle recreation and law enforcement has averaged more than half a million dollars annually in the past, and helps pay for ground operations like trail maintenance and repairs.

Previous grants have helped pay for clearing downed trees from more than 1,600 miles of off-highway routes in the Stanislaus National Forest, law enforcement patrols on 756 miles of surface roads in the forest, printing of free Motor Vehicle Use Maps, and other education, planning, development and restoration activities.

Off roaders want access

Methot says he wants to see the Forest Service finish a travel management plan they began more than 10 years ago, because the off-highway vehicle part of the plan has been unresolved.

“We’re waiting for this to be completed,” Methot said. “I’m hoping we get money out of the grant applications, money for that to complete the travel management plan.”

Methot said he’d also like to see grant money designated to get 40 miles of off-highway routes and trails reopened. The trails have been closed since a 2014 settlement between the Forest Service and conservation groups like the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte.

“We’d like to see that returned to OHV use,” Methot said. “They call it an interim closure but they’ve had it closed four years now.”

Stewards of Stanislaus are mainly off-highway vehicle users like dirt bikers, all terrain four-wheelers and Jeep club members, Methot said. They also include mountain bikers, fishermen, hunters and others who care about access in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Methot said he helped start the group a year ago to work with the Forest Service to keep trails maintained and to keep an eye on what’s going in the forest. The group has about a hundred members, and its part of the nonprofit California Trail Users Coalition.

Methot estimates that in the 1,400 square-mile Stanislaus forest, 10 percent or less of all the off-highway trails and roads are open right now, due to seasonal closures.

“Too much of the forest is closed year-round, and during the winter seasonal closure, even more of the forest is closed,” Methot said. “As an off-highway user, more of the forest could be open.”

CSERC wants educated off roaders

John Buckley, executive director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said Monday the off-highway vehicle grant program is an area where there’s broad consensus support for getting available state funds for doing important state projects in the local national forest.

“In the past, our center and other conservation groups were unhappy with the Stanislaus forest approving a huge number of unauthorized user-created motorcycle routes and ATV routes in the national forest,” Buckley said Monday. “When the Forest Service approved a plan that allowed more than a hundred miles of such routes to become authorized this resulted in litigation and an eventual settlement some years back.”

Buckley was talking about appeals to the Forest Service off-highway vehicle plan in January 2010, followed by a legal challenge to the plan by CSERC and the Wilderness Society in August 2010, and a January 2013 federal court ruling that the Stanislaus National Forest must do more to prevent environmental damage posed by off-road vehicles.

The settlement in May 2014 on paper closed 41 miles of off-highway routes until they could be changed, rerouted or rectified, Buckley said.

“Since that time our center, the Forest Service and off-highway vehicle groups have cooperatively worked together on grant projects that everyone agrees are desirable,” Buckley said. “This is an example of a win-win where the forest, user groups and conservation groups provide strong consensus for projects such as repairing erosion on OHV trails, for educating OHV riders about requirements and safe riding, and for enforcement dollars that pay portions of the Forest Service costs of managing off-highway use in the public forest.”

Challenges for the Forest Service

Summarizing concerns of conservation groups when it comes to off-highway vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest, Buckley said there are already more than 2,000 miles of Forest Service roads in addition to county roads, state highways and private timber roads in the Stanislaus.

“There is an incredible amount of motorized vehicle access without even talking about the trails that are used by dirt bikes and ATVs,” Buckley said. “Those that are interested in that experience have vast amounts of gravel and dirt roads as well as the OHV trails to ride and to enjoy.”

In the past, the challenge has been that the Forest Service has prioritized motorized use above and beyond their protections for rare plants, at-risk wildlife species and popular areas for quiet recreation, Buckley said.

“Deer Creek is very popular with OHV riders but it’s also the heart of the winter deer range,” Buckley said. “It has a variety of rare plants, as well as other concerns such as shallow volcanic soils that are susceptible to erosion. That’s an area where the Forest Service has used grant dollars for signing OHV routes, do restoration repair on areas damaged by OHV use, and for educating OHV users.”

Buckley emphasized that right now there’s no present planning process that is highly controversial. Buckley said the challenge for the Forest Service is to enforce its existing policies and its existing motorized system.

“Our center’s goal is to support appropriate use of motorized vehicles across areas that are appropriate, and steer them away from use in areas where they cause damage,” Buckley said. “The story for now is here are all these groups working together and an opportunity for the public to offer feedback.”

Off roaders want to be heard

Methot agreed with Buckley that appeals and legal challenges and the 2014 settlement are all a rehash of previous disagreements, and that today people like Stewards of Stanislaus want to work with the Forest Service and conservation groups to secure grants.

But Methot dismissed Buckley’s portrayal of the Deer Creek winter range as a legitimate argument for conservation groups to question the presence of dirt bikers and other off roaders.

“The winter deer range, that argument, that has been going on 30 years, in different places up and down the state,” Methot said. “Do dirt bikes and deer conflict? Look at Hollister Hills. The deer population in the park is greater than the surrounding areas. That’s a false argument. The deer become acclimated to the presence of dirt bikes. I don’t understand how that impacts their winter range.”

Methot also said he does not want to reignite controversy with conservation groups, and he emphasized that Stewards of Stanislaus care about conservation concerns.

“When I go out, as riders we want all the areas to be sustainable,” Methot said. “We don’t want erosion. Those trails in Deer Creek have been there since the ‘70s. Chuck has rerouted some of those trails and and we stay away from them.”

Methot said the Forest Service started doing a 500-page environmental impact study back in 2003 in the Deer Creek area.

“Trail by trail and they were thorough,” Methot said. “Today Deer Creek is a excellent example of a well-managed OHV area.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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