The Forest Service held an open house at the Hamilton Senior Center on Dec. 7 to take public comment on its proposed regulations for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The proposed regulations will affect motorized recreation on nearly 16 million acres of federal lands across Montana and North and South Dakota. Hamilton residents filtered in throughout the afternoon to speak with Forest Service reps, leave written comments, and enjoy a cup of coffee on a cold afternoon. The mood was nonconfrontational, but there was little fraternizing between opposing viewpoints.
Larry Hamilton, a dealer in off-road accessories from Lolo, was clearly displeased with all the regulatory alternatives offered by the Forest Service in its handout. “We want off-road access, but we also want road access—without all the gates ... ,” he said. “Why is the Forest Service restricting use instead of responding to that demand?”
As the current regulations are interpreted, those thousands of miles of both roads and trails are open to motorized use unless they are gated or specifically posted as closed. At issue also are so-called “rut routes”—illicitly blazed trails that are not part of any official trail system. Under the proposed regulations, these would also remain open to motorized use unless posted closed. For many Bitterroot residents, the current regulations add up to a kind of motorized free-for-all, with the interests of hikers and walk-in hunters being disregarded. And the proposed regulations aren’t much better.
“None of the proposed regulation alternatives address the resource damage caused by all this motorized mayhem,” said Darby resident Larry Campbell. “Without a site-specific analysis, how can you say which trails should be open and which should be closed? With new rut routes going in every summer, how can anyone keep up with it? The problems will just go on and on.”
The Forest Service has rejected an alternative that would require an extensive study of which roads and trails are appropriate for ATV use, saying that it would require several years to reach a conclusion, and the goal is to come up with regulations within the next year.
That’s a tall order. One man in the motorized group said disgustedly, “This is all geared to the people who want to lock it up. What’s the use?”
The Forest Service, as always, occupies the unpopular middle. On the table by the front door was an unsigned public comment sheet, with the simple declaration, “NO MORE REGULATIONS. TOO MANY NOW.”
Written public comment period has been extended to Feb. 24.