SACRAMENTO — On behalf of off-road motorized recreational users of the Tahoe National Forest, attorneys with Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit July 17 over the federal government illegally closing off more than 800 miles of roads and trails in the Tahoe National Forest that have been used for decades by the public for environmentally responsible off-road motorized recreation, access to camping and fishing, and to assist in the prevention of forest fires.
“We are filing this lawsuit to stop the U.S. Forest Service from illegally padlocking vast areas of the Tahoe National Forest and blocking the public from enjoying responsible recreational use of public lands,” said PLF attorney Brandon M. Middleton.
Donor-supported PLF is a legal watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for limited government, property rights and a balanced approach to environmental regulations.
PLF attorneys always represent clients without charge. The plaintiffs in this case are organizations and individual recreational users of the forest, including Friends of Tahoe Forest Access (with members in Nevada County, Placer County and surrounding areas); Nevada County Woods Riders; Grass Valley 4-Wheel Drive Club; High Sierra Motorcycle Club; and Webilt Four-Wheel Drive Club, and Friends of Greenhorn, both based in Placer County.
Feds distort a “Travel Management Rule” process to illegally restrict forest access
The lawsuit targets the implementation of the Forest Service’s 2005 Travel Management Rule at the Tahoe National Forest. “The rule calls for an open and transparent process for designation of roads and trails available to the public for motorized recreation,” said Middleton. “But the implementation of the rule at the Tahoe National Forest has been anything but transparent. Contrary to assurances that public recreational access has been protected, the agency has ended up prohibiting motorized off-road vehicles on hundreds of miles of roads and trails that have been traditionally available to the public for recreational purposes.”
“This was a bait-and-switch game,” Middleton continued. “The Forest Service lulled people into complacency over the 2005 Travel Management Rule and said recreational enthusiasts had nothing to fear. But then, we find out that over 800 miles of roads or trails are going to be blocked off from traditional motorized recreational uses. In the end, less than 50 miles of formerly accessible trails have been left open for off-road motorized use.
“This draconian closure of public access to the Tahoe National Forest is the result of an unlawful process and illegal decision-making, and that is why we are seeking relief in federal court.”
Voices of recreational users. At issue: denial of public access to public lands — and a threat to forest management and firefighting
• David C. Wood, of Chicago Park (Nevada County), an off-road vehicle enthusiast and trail maintenance volunteer:
“We’re just a bunch of volunteers and recreationists who love the outdoors and feel blessed to be able to get out there and visit in an environmentally responsible way, but now that is being denied. We volunteer hundreds of hours yearly to clear trails so that all who follow us can enjoy them. In this land of many uses, in a free society, we should be allowed choices, but what we’re seeing in this case is, there is just one choice. The choice is to do what the federal officials say.”
• Kyra, of Cedar Ridge (Nevada County), an off-road-vehicle enthusiast and activist for recreational rights:
“Until now, Western public lands have been open and accessible to the public for environmentally responsible use. Off-road vehicle recreationists have participated in a long tradition, enjoying the forests for camping, fishing, driving for recreation, and spiritual regeneration, using trails that date back in some cases to the 1800s. “We will now also have reduced access for timber management and firefighting. Off-road enthusiasts have always put a priority on maintaining roads and trails. When firefighters are out fighting forest fires, they don’t need to be cutting logs. If we can keep the trails clear — and that’s what we traditionally have done — that benefits everybody.”
• Jacquelyne Theisen of Auburn, with Friends of Greenhorn:
“Off-road vehicle enthusiasts have been undeservedly attacked by environmental groups who paint a picture to their members that simply doesn’t exist on the scale they assert. The truth is, the forest roads and trails we use are thousands of times more pristine than Interstate 80. The Forest Service came to the motorized users community in need of funds to begin the Travel Management Program. Over $12 million was paid to help map all of our roads and trails.”
“But then, once they were identified, they were promptly closed by the Forest Service,” Theisen continued. “This is a problem that extends far beyond Tahoe National Forest. Tens of thousands of Forest Service roads are being closed nationwide to every American.
“We are very grateful that Pacific Legal Foundation is taking this case, and taking a stand in court for responsible forest policies and meaningful public access to public lands.”
The legal case against the feds’ padlocking ploy
The lawsuit challenges the Forest Service’s dramatic restriction on public access to Tahoe National Forest on several grounds, including:
1) Regulators unlawfully prejudiced the road and trail designation process at the Tahoe National Forest in favor of route closure.
2) The Forest Service misled the public by insisting that closing over 800 miles of roads and trails to motor vehicles would have a beneficial effect on motorized recreational opportunities, in violation of the agency’s duty under the National Environmental Policy Act to provide accurate information to the public.
3) The Forest Service misled by claiming that formerly legal motorized recreation in the Tahoe National Forest was “unauthorized,” creating the false impression that PLF’s clients and the public never had a right to access the forest through motorized recreation.
4) The Forest Service failed to adequately detail the impacts that closing roads and trails would have on motor vehicle use. These impacts include increased risk of forest fires, as motor recreationists who previously cleared brush, trees and other impediments from roads and trails that are used to combat forest fires will now be unable to do so.
“Our clients attempted to work with the Forest Service as it developed its Travel Management Rule blueprint,” said Middleton. “But the process wasn’t transparent and has resulted in the opposite of what was promised. Instead of securing access to the public, the federal government is essentially posting ‘keep out’ signs for roads and recreational opportunities that families have been enjoying for generations. The Forest Service needs to be held to account for its illegal decision-making, so that our clients as well as individuals and families throughout California can continue cherished recreational activities at the Tahoe National Forest.”
Defending public access and public recreation: the economic implications
The issues in this case extend beyond public access, firefighting and accountability in the regulatory process. There are also important implications for the economy. A recent publication of the Western Governors’ Association, “A Snapshot of the Economic Impact of Outdoor Recreation,” included motorcycle riding in the key activities that it surveyed. The survey reported that the economic benefits of outdoor recreation in 2011 (including off-road motorized recreation) included $645.6 billion in consumer spending, nationwide.
The lawsuit is entitled Friends of Tahoe Forest Access v. United States Department of Agriculture. The complaint may be found at PLF’s Website: pacificlegal.org.
About Pacific Legal Foundation
Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation is the leading watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights and a balanced approach to environmental regulation, in courts across the country.
PLF attorneys recently won their sixth direct-representation case at the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging overreaching government regulations: Sackett v. EPA.