Friday, January 28, 2011

Forest Service invites public comment on forest roads safety review; comments due Feb. 22

OHV riders in Idaho should take notice that the U.S. Forest Service is currently seeking public comment on a forest road safety review to identify national forest system roads where OHV use may be a safety issue due to the heavy use of passenger cars and trucks.

The agency is reviewing safety issues primarily on main haul roads that OHV riders may use to travel to Forest Service trailheads or to complete loop rides. The review process is being conducted in every national forest in Idaho. Forest Service officials say they plan to look at mitigation measures to improve safety first, such as signage or brush cutting to improve visibility, but some restrictions on OHV use may occur, or roads may be closed to OHVs if no other alternatives can be found. Even if restrictions on OHV use occurs, the Forest Service roads would remain open to the general public traveling in cars or trucks, officials said.

The Forest Service is requesting public input on the issue. Each national forest has prepared a list of roads that they deem may be hazardous to OHVs riders. The list of hazardous roads is available for public review from each national forest. Contact the national forest where you like to ride to learn more. Public comments are due by Feb. 22.

Here is a copy of the Forest Service's news release regarding the issue.

For example, in the Panhandle National Forests, they reviewed 4,300 miles of roads and came up with 151 miles that need to be evaluated for safety improvements. The agency has several maps and information on its web site for more information.

One reason the agency was prompted to conduct a review of its main access roads, some of which are paved, is that kids under the age of 16 are allowed to ride OHVs on some major Forest Service roads with parental supervision. Previously, OHV use on main forest roads was restricted to people aged 16 and over who have a driver's license, a requirement that still exists for county roads.

"Safe operation of motor vehicles on national forest roads is compromised because unlicensed and untrained drivers are now sharing roads designed and maintained for passenger cars and commercial truck traffic," said Harv Forsgren, regional forester of the Forest Service's Intermountain Region based in Ogden, Utah.

Idaho Parks and Recreation officials advise OHV riders that they should pay attention to the Forest Service road safety review because it could lead to restrictions or closures. But they are also concerned that the Forest Service may be over-reacting. "People have been riding OHVs on these roads in mixed-use areas for 30 years," said Troy Elmore, OHV program manager for IDPR. "The Forest Service was supposed to review mixed-uses on main Forest Service roads during the travel planning process, so this shouldn't be anything new to them."

Statewide, Andy Brunelle, Forest Service liaison in Boise, said the agency evaluated some 7,700 miles of roads used by cars and trucks, and then shrunk the list down to 2,500 miles that are of concern. Approximately 770 miles of national forest roads are either paved or two-lane and experience high traffic volumes and speeds. Other national forest roads of concern were identified based on roadside character such as limited sight distances, blind curves, cliffs or steep embankments, or presently have limited locations for pull-outs.

Potential safety measures being considering include reduced speed limits, brush removal for improved visibility, warning signs, speed bumps, or other minor engineering changes. "In cases where risks are unacceptable, OHV use may be restricted," Forsgren said. "However, for each road of concern, restricting OHV use will be considered as a last resort when no other reasonable and effective safety measures can be implemented."

Sandra Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Recreation Council, said she would prefer to see signage and other measures used vs. closing roads. "We don't think there should be any closures of forest roads in the state of Idaho," she says. "The fundamental question that needs to be asked is, "Is there a problem out there?" To our knowledge, there hasn't been a mixed-use accident out there. It's just not happening."

Mitchell notes that parents are required to supervise kids riding on OHVs on Forest Service roads, and she said she thinks parents by and large are doing a good job of monitoring their kids on forest roads and avoiding accidents.

Adds Elmore, "We would support any mitigation measures where they could improve safety for all users and continue to allow people to complete their loop rides. But beyond that, we don't believe that any closures or restrictions are necessary unless data supports otherwise."

A related issue is that the Idaho Recreation Council is co-sponsoring new legislation that would require Idaho kids under 16 to take a mandatory safety course before they ride OHVs on public roads. The legislation, Senate Bill 1001, has been introduced. The bill is pending in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The Forest Service supports SB 1001, Brunelle said. Elmore said that IDPR has not taken a formal position on the legislation, but if it passes, the agency would be prepared to implement it.

Mandatory safety courses for youths would ease the Forest Service's safety concerns, Brunelle said. "If we have training for kids, that lowers the risk," he said.