OAKHURST - Matt Cassle enjoys riding his motorcycle over something other than pavement.
But with the Sierra National Forest poised to close a majority of trails and routes that motorcycle riders, Jeep drivers and backcountry campers have utilized for decades, Cassle and others like him feel they're the ones being run over.
Sixty off-road enthusiasts turned out for a public forum Tuesday night at the Oakhurst Community Center mainly to express frustration and displeasure with Forest Service officials over the Motorized Travel Management Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The 998-page document (including appendixes) was released last week, triggering a 45-day public comment period that ends June 15.
By the end of 2009, all national forests in the Pacific Southwest Region are charged with developing a designated system of roads, trails and areas for access and recreation while protecting natural and cultural resources.
Cassle, who lives in Clovis, agrees with the need for a designated system. But he said the Forest Service is using the process as an opportunity to close trails and took issue with Forest Service-produced maps that he called "blatantly deceptive."
"As a user of the forest," Cassle said, "I feel I'm getting steamrolled by this process."
Fellow motorcyclist Larry Langley of North Fork echoed that sentiment: "This is their backdoor system of getting us out of the forest. They create wilderness, which drives us out. And now they're closing trails we've enjoyed for 20 to 30 years."
Although the Sierra National Forest contains some established off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes, most of the off-roading takes place on trails and tracks created by users or built decades ago by logging, mining or railroad companies.
In 2005, outside contractors identified and mapped 558 miles of what the Forest Service calls "unauthorized" routes, a term users strongly object to.
"It tells the public that there are a bunch of renegade OHV people just out there making trails," Cassle said. "That's not the case at all."
In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the DEIS contains five proposed alternatives that will form the basis of the designated system.
After the public comment period, Sierra National Forest supervisor Ed Cole will decide which alternative to adopt. Cole has the option of combining parts of different alternatives.
One of the five alternatives would maintain the status quo, including keeping cross-country travel legal. But in response to a question, Cole said he has "no authority" to select it.
"I firmly believe in providing motorized activity in the national forest," Cole told the group. "But I have to look at it in the context of all the environmental issues and laws and regulations that we have."
No matter which alternative Cole chooses, OHV users will have significantly fewer trails on which to drive legally. Alternative 5, the one most friendly to recreation, would add 72 miles of trails, 14 miles of roads and 113 acres of designated play areas to the National Forest Transportation System.
Keep in mind the 86 miles of combined trails and roads represent only 15.4% of the 558 miles of "unauthorized" routes inventoried in 2005 and 30.7% of the 280 miles that users specifically asked the Sierra National Forest to keep open when this process began in September 2007.
Other alternatives would add even fewer miles of OHV routes. Alternative 3 would add zero.
"By the state and Forest Service's own admission, OHV use has grown tremendously in the last 20 years," said Mike Wubbels, executive director of the pro-access group Stewards of the Sierra National Forest.
"And yet they want to take more people and confine them to a smaller area. The end result is going to be more resource damage, which we'll no doubt be blamed for."
Even designated routes will be subject to restrictions that govern the width of vehicles allowed on them as well as season-of-use closures.
For example, the popular Dusy-Ershim OHV Route in the High Sierra Ranger District would remain closed a month longer each summer until Aug. 1 because it passes through mountain yellow-legged frog breeding habitat.
It's not just off-road vehicle drivers who feel like they're losing access. Horseback riders and hunters bristle at the "one-car length" provision contained within each alternative that prevents them from driving off a designated route to reach one of several hundred established campgrounds within the forest.
Many of these dispersed campgrounds are connected to OHV routes by spur trails that may be only 50 to 100 feet long. But unless the spur trail is part of the designated system, it will be illegal to drive on it.
Toby Horst, past chapter president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California, said he submitted comments on 50 such spur trails that he'd like to see included in the designated system. Only two of the 50 appear in the DEIS.
"We're all going to be crowded into a few areas that are one car length from the road," Horst said. "It's going to create conflict."
Cole, the Sierra National Forest supervisor, turned down several requests to extend the 45-day public comment period, saying he could not push back the date and still meet a Jan. 1, 2010, deadline to publish a new Motor Vehicle Use Map.
Cole emphasized that the designated system of OHV routes is not something the Forest Service will "chisel into a rock and never look at again. Every year we will produce another updated map. This is not the end of the process."
However, some remain skeptical of those claims.
"The history of the Forest Service to follow through on this kind of thing isn't very good," Horst said. "We've gone from a forest where everything is open unless it's designated closed to a forest where everything is closed unless designated open."