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Off-road skirmishes

FLORENCE — The sun is shining, the temperature is pushing 60 and swarms of dirt bikes, dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles buzz all over the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

Can this really be late winter in Oregon?

Better believe it.

Even when the weather is less than ideal, President's Day weekend traditionally signals the start of the off-highway vehicle riding season at the Oregon Dunes, where off-roading enthusiasts account for an estimated 750,000 visitor days a year.

"Isn't this cool?" marvels Lindy Minten, taking in the scene from the saddle of her sport quad, a four-wheeled ATV with big balloon tires and a powerful engine. "This is what we love."

Minten and her family, who have a farm near Scio, trek to the coast a half-dozen times a year to camp with friends and play in the sand with their four-wheelers in this sprawling recreation area managed by the Siuslaw National Forest.

But the Forest Service is rewriting its regulations for off-highway vehicles, and riders fear they could lose access to some of their favorite spots.

Up to now, national forest lands have been open to off-highway use unless specifically closed. Under the agency's new Travel Management Rule, only designated roads, trails and cross-country areas will be open.

In the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, a "proposed action" will be unveiled to the public by the beginning of April, says spokeswoman Patty Burel, adding that open houses on the management issue were held in June in Medford, Grants Pass, Gold Beach and Myrtle Point. Future public forums are planned, she says.

Local forest officials will use further public comments to produce a map by 2009 identifying the types of vehicles that will be allowed on Forest Service land, including during what seasons designated OHV routes will be open, Burel says.

Off-highway vehicles have exploded in popularity in recent years. According to an industry estimate, annual sales of ATVs and dirt bikes tripled from 1995 to 2003, bringing the total number in use to 8 million nationwide.

Off-highway vehicle use on public lands has grown at the same time, with the Forest Service now estimating 11 million rider visits a year.

The surge in off-roading prompted former Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth to declare unmanaged off-roading use one of the top threats facing the agency and led to the Travel Management Rule. That rule is now being implemented in the nation's 155 national forests, including 13 in Oregon.

For the most part, off-roaders accept the need for better management of their fast-growing sport. But they're also mobilizing to defend their turf.

"Our group and virtually all of the organized OHV community supported the rule," says Brian Hawthorne of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national riders' organization. "We're in the mode of trying to accommodate off-road recreational use, rather than restrict it."

Implementing the Travel Management Rule is a painstaking exercise, with each national forest soliciting public input to produce maps showing proposals for designated riding areas. More feedback is then taken before a final decision is made.

For now, no management changes are proposed for the 29,000-acre Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which hopscotches down the coast between Florence and Coos Bay. But a skirmish is shaping up over two smaller dune fields just north of Florence, 250-acre Joshua Lane and 50-acre Collard Lake. Both are popular with local riders but less so among the neighbors, who complain about noise, littering and rowdy behavior.

Unlike the Oregon Dunes, neither area has parking lots, staging areas or camping facilities, while both have some sensitive plant species. The current proposal calls for closing Joshua Lane and Collard Lake to motorized access.

Under the Travel Management Rule, forests are considering closing some "key" roads to ATVs and dirt bikes. With more users in the forest and less money available to keep roads clear of brush, forest officials are worried about accidents.

"It's a safety issue," says Frank Davis, the Siuslaw's project leader.

Riders see it differently. Some of the roads up for closure, they say, are used by hunters or by off-roaders looking to link up scattered riding areas. To them, closing roads is another sign that their fast-growing sport is being marginalized by public land managers.

"By the time they forbid us on the so-called key road system ... we won't have anything left," says Ron Phillips, president of the Mount Baber ATV Club, a mid-valley group that claims close to 1,000 members. "And there's no plan to build (new) ATV trails in the forest."

Corvallis resident Randy Rasmussen, a recreation policy specialist with the American Hiking Society, said he stopped taking his family camping at Big Lake after it became a magnet for off-roaders.

"You can see the Three Sisters, the beautiful lake and then the motors whine and kids come by doing wheelies," Rasmussen says. "Everybody should be able to use public lands, but you shouldn't be allowed to ruin it for everyone else."

On the Net: BlueRibbon Coalition: http:www.sharetrails.org/

Off-road vehicles are seen, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008 in Florence, Ore. Off-roading vehicle recreation is a fast-growing sport in places like the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where riders account for 750,000 visitor days a year. Now the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Oregon Dunes, is rolling out a new policy restricting off-road vehicles use in some areas. (AP Photo/Corvallis Gazette-Times, Andy Cripe) - AP