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Managing Lands Out West - 2001-07-30


It's the bull trout against the bikers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is writing a recovery plan for the threatened fish species, and until it's approved and implemented, in a year or so, many environmentalists want land managers to keep off-road vehicles away from bull trout spawning areas and other fragile lands. This battle over bull trout is part of a much larger political war going on in the American West over how to manage public lands. There are two general views on how to manage the vast public lands in the American West. One side lobbies for increased resource development, and includes loggers, miners, ranchers and those who ride motor cycles and off-road vehicles on federal lands. People like Willy Earl.

Willy Earl relaxes with a beer on his friend's lawn in Challis, a once prosperous mining and ranching town in central rural Idaho. He used to work in the mine but it closed down. Now he has a towing business. And in his free time, he loves riding off-road vehicles in the mountains. "It's a lot of fun to go out to all these places that we have available to us," Mr. Earl says. "Driving and seeing the country and go out there and shoot the can, spit on the dirt, mark your territory."

Willy Earl and his friend Jim Sugdone worry that proposals to recover the endangered bull trout might result in closing some of the 5000 kilometers of roads that are available for them to ride on in the nearby Salmon-Challis National Forest. "I don't believe any road should be closed, anywhere," Mr. Sugdone says. "Why is that? So we can get back there and use them. So we see what's back there."

Off-road vehicle users are so adamant about keeping roads open, they've come up a legislative proposal to keep lands all over the country open for them. Clark Collins is with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national off road vehicle user group whose members include motorcycle manufacturers. "We believe there's broad recreation constituency out there that is ready to support a designation that is more user friendly, to protect these areas without restrictions that wilderness imposes."

Clark Collins is circulating his Off-Road Vehicle Users Back Country Plan now, but no one in Congress has offered to sponsor it yet.

The other side in this battle over how to manage public lands in the West includes environmentalists who want some mining, logging and ranching to continue, but who also want some lands rehabilitated and preserved. People like Lee Mercer of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, an environmental group that worked for years to get the federal government to list the bull trout as an endangered species. That designation limits development in critical habitat areas so the species can recover. Mr. Mercer walks to the edge of Big Creek in central Idaho's Lemhi Mountains. "This stream is a bull trout stream," he says. "As you can see it's fairly clear water which bull trout like, they are very sensitive to sediment."

Sediment from livestock grazing, logging and off-road vehicle trails erodes into streams like this one, where the few bull trout that remain like to lay their eggs. Biologists say that when dirt and silt clog the gravel bars, spawning fails. That's why environmentalists want off-road vehicle users to stay away from streams like this one, but often, says Lee Mercer, they don't. "As you could see during our hike, even where the downed trees are, they're riding up the side of hills to get around downed trees," he explains. "And that creates opportunities for erosion and sediment loading. And that's especially unfortunate because Big Creek is considered recoverable for bull trout and bull trout is a threatened species currently."

According to George Matejko, supervisor of central Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest, Big Creek and areas important for bull trout are being properly protected while the recovery plan is designed. "Like any of our project works," Mr. Matejko says, "we have U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists working with us, to make sure we do the right thing for the bull trout now, then the recovery plan will help us recover the species."

Sitting by Big Creek, surrounded by white and grand fir trees, quaking aspen, cottonwoods, Pacific willow and chokecherry, Lee Mercer takes a broader view. He sees the bull trout as a keystone species that requires cold clean water best provided by a forest without much human impact. The environmentalist and educator wants the northern Lemhi Mountains preserved not only for the bull trout to eventually make a comeback, but also for hikers and others who want to learn about nature in a quiet place away from the roar of motors. "This area is what would be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System if the Northern Rockies Eco-system Protection Act was passed it would prohibit off-road vehicle usage," Mr. Mercer says.

The proposal would also prevent development in many lands where bull trout once flourished. It has more than 140 supporters but hasn't been introduced in Congress yet this session. As the two sides battle it out politically, federal land managers seek common ground where bull trout, hikers and off-road vehicle users can co-exist.