Clovis News: Sports

Off-roaders must wait longer for route decisions

Four-wheel drive enthusiasts who've waited nearly three years for the Sierra National Forest to establish a system of off-highway vehicle routes will have to wait a little longer.

The Record of Decision and Final Environmental Impact Statement, scheduled to be released this month, will be delayed until early April, spokeswoman Sue Exline said.

Furthermore, the person ultimately responsible for deciding which roads are included and excluded from the designated system, forest supervisor Ed Cole, will not have to publicly explain his choices.

That's because Cole is retiring March 2, one day after he is scheduled to sign the final documents that are currently being reviewed and edited at the regional office in Vallejo.

"There are some mixed feelings because we don't want the public to perceive that [Cole] signed the papers, walked out the door and didn't have the tenacity to defend his decisions," Exline said.

Cole did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Although Cole announced his retirement in October, Exline said the process of finding his replacement could take months -- which would've meant additional delays.

"I think the public would want us to go forward and release the decision," Exline said.

Cole's decision will almost certainly be controversial.

Four-wheel drive enthusiasts, who have enjoyed relative autonomy on national forest lands, are sure to bristle when roads they've driven for years are declared off-limits. And environmentalists are sure to think the plan doesn't go far enough in restricting where motorized vehicles are allowed to venture.

Public meetings are already being scheduled in Clovis, Oakhurst and Prather for the second week of April. The public will also have a 45-day window to appeal the decision before it takes effect.