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Old May 6th, 2006, 08:41 AM   #1
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Default It's just as bad in Florida

A from the UFWDA forums...

Here is an article from the Orlando Sentinel that was published this week about the Ocala National Forest. ALso at the end is our rebuttal. Just shows you what the Forest Service says in order to get its way. (This note is from the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association)

Joy riding in the sprawling Ocala National Forest is destroying nature, and changes must be made, rangers say.

Stephen Hudak
Sentinel Staff Writer

May 2, 2006

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST -- The earth-chewing tires of off-road vehicles have wrought damage to the forest that is worse than feared, federal officials said as they prepare to impose tighter and tougher controls on joy riders in the sprawling forest.

"To not make changes would be irresponsible," Ranger Rick Lint said.

The U.S. Forest Service, caretakers of the 383,000-acre forest in Lake, Volusia, Marion and Putnam counties, is implementing long-threatened rules. They include the first-ever marked trails for Jeeps, motorcycles and other all-terrain off-road vehicles that used to have run of the land.

But marked trails aren't the only changes.

The Forest Service has secured federal grants to hire police officers to keep renegade riders on designated paths, Lint said. The service also has petitioned federal courts to double the fines for trailblazers, who are blamed for much of the damage to the forest's delicate habitat.

"You might have heard about how motorized vehicles have abused the land, but when you see it firsthand, it's just 'Wow,' " Lint said after reviewing photographs that wildlife biologists collected last week during an acre-by-acre assessment. "It's just shocking."

It also can't continue, he said.

Lush habitat, where the vines of the endangered Florida bonamia grew and red-cockaded woodpeckers nested, has become a rutted desert broken only by occasional trash heaps.

"They've gotten into about every sinkhole, prairie pond and wetland out there," said Carrie Sekerak, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist who helped document the damage.

Forest officials last year closed 8,200 acres of environmentally sensitive land in Lake County where repeated thrill-riding had deeply scarred a prairie pond. Work crews have begun to mark 42 miles of trails set aside for ATVs and dirt bikes.

Rangers also are prepared to enforce a policy of "closed unless marked open."

The new policy, which is opposite of the current practice of "open unless marked closed," means that more than 1,000 miles of snaking trails will be off limits to riders.

Forest officials expect a fight, and they'll probably get one.

The Florida Four-Wheel Drive Association, which wants more play areas, met Thursday to discuss their options, including possible lawsuits, said Jason Kawaja, its president.

The group represents owners of Jeeps, Hummers, pickups and other four-wheel-drive vehicles that are licensed for the highway -- a distinction separating them from ATVs.

"I think we're seen by the Forest Service as more of a problem than a solution," said Kawaja, who is among dozens of association volunteers who have helped clean up forest trails.

ATV riders also don't feel welcome in the forest, said B.J. Johnson, president of the Muddy Waters ATV Association based in Deltona.

"We all feel they'd rather push us out than help us out," he said.

But as riding groups were mulling future legal routes, the Forest Service was driving markers into 20 winding miles of existing paths that will be known as the Paisley OHV [off-highway vehicle] Trail.

The trail begins at the intersection of County Road 445 and a power line.

Albert Heminway, 60, who rode his four-wheel Honda Rancher to the trailhead Friday, sipped coffee from a thermos as he pondered what the new rules meant for him.

He frowned. He would no longer be permitted to ride from his home to the forest.

Heminway, who lives in nearby Shockley Heights, rides unmarked trails at least twice a week, enjoying blue skies and whoop-de-doos, the undulating bumps ATVs make in the sand.

"I can probably live with this," he said.

Not all riders tread as lightly as Heminway.

Federal law-enforcement Officer Chris Crain, one of two lawmen patrolling the forest, said some riders will continue to ignore rules and cut their own trails, even in forbidden areas.

"I've stopped people riding their ATVs with chain saws on the back," he said. "I know what they're doing. . . . They're making their own trails to ride where they want to ride."

Keeping rough-riders on the new trails is essential, especially in places like Paisley, one of the most easily accessible and popular riding destinations, judging from tire damage.

Sekerak, the wildlife biologist, described a 28-square-mile patch of forest near Paisley where researchers counted 400 miles of user-cut trails, a road density rivaling a city block.

"You're talking about hundreds of acres of habitat that are gone," she said.

Sekerak said the riders, their machines and their noise have chased away striped newts and sandhill cranes that nested there and depended on bugs that hid in the vegetation.

"All the ATVers see is a big bird fly off," she said. "They don't realize they've essentially just killed the chick she left behind. That little fuzzy chick needs the warmth of her mother to survive."

Rangers are trying to better understand off-road riders, who are the fastest-growing group of visitors to the forest, which is within an hour's drive for 8 million people.

The U.S. Forest Service recently commissioned University of Florida professor Taylor Stein to study riders -- recreation research that could help rangers avoid conflicts with them.

Lint said he thinks most off-road enthusiasts want trails and a safe, fun riding experience, which is difficult now because of hordes of zig-zagging, criss-crossing riders.

Rangers recently leveled out an open space near Big Scrub for a helicopter landing pad, citing the frequency of emergency medical evacuations because of off-road accidents.

Lint warned that new limits also are coming soon to Big Scrub, a popular riding area that, on its busiest days, can resemble a mall parking lot before Christmas.

"No one wants to bring the hammer down," he said. "But the forest has been a beautiful place for generations, and we have the duty to make sure it stays beautiful for future generations."

Our rebuttal

On behalf of the members of the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association, Inc., may I offer a rebuttal to Stephen Hudak’s recent article “Rangers reign in Riders”. Mr. Hudak’s reporting has proven once again that the media has a predetermined agenda without offering more insightful comments.

Several important topics were overlooked or omitted in the recent article. Published photographs show beer bottles on the ground within the Ocala National Forest. If your reported would have dug a little deeper into the matter, he would have found that probably 90% of the household trash that is illegally dumped within the Ocala National Forest is from local residents. How do we know this? Because the typical off road recreational user will not travel the two plus hours to the Forest to dump his mattress, cracked toilet , kitchen sink, or roofing shingles. These are just a few of the items that volunteers within the Florida Four Wheel Drive member clubs have removed from the Ocala National Forest. In the last eight months, member clubs of the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association, Inc., have removed over TEN TONS of garbage and rubbish from the Forest. Not to mention the two active meth labs that were uncovered during weekend trail rides.

Carrie Sekarak commented, “All the ATVers see is a big bird fly off…They don't realize they've essentially just killed the chick she left behind. That little fuzzy chick needs the warmth of her mother to survive." Ms. Sekarak, are Jeeps and ATV’s that go down a ten foot wide trail at 15 mph as detrimental to your sandhill cranes as the numerous logging trucks and skids used to clear cut hundreds of acres of pine? Where does the wildlife go that inhabits those areas? Let me also remind your readers that there are several hundred acres of wilderness areas within the Ocala National Forest where motorized recreation is not permitted. The members of the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association, Inc., adhere to this policy.

Mr. Lint’s comments that the Forest Service is trying to better understand the nature of off road recreation is ludicrous. Mr. Lint is steadfastly opposed to motorized recreation and only pays lip service to user groups. Only because the United States Forest Service must deal with motorized recreation on a Federal level does Mr. Lint suggest that he wants to learn more about it. My comments are sternly worded because neither Mr. Lint, nor any of his staff, are as familiar with the roads and trails and the amount of traffic on them as the user groups. We have extended invitations to him and his staff to come with us to better understand what it is we do in a typical outing. As of this writing, we still have had no response. At a recent meeting with Forest Service personel, we asked if there could be some clarification as to what constitutes a “wetland”. That meeting was nearly two months ago and the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association still does not have an answer. His claims that off road users want a safe, fun riding experience without all of the zigzagging, crisscrossing riders, and in order to accomplish providing the users groups with just that, his answer is to close over 1000 miles of trails, thereby concentrating all of those users onto a certain trail system, causing a larger, negative impact on the area. Seems like a wise move to me, and if a frog had wings he wouldn’t hit his butt when he hopped.

With regard to the newly constructed helicopter landing pad near Big Scrub, your reporter spins this to appear as if a portion of a timber stand near the Big Scrub Campground was cleared to accommodate a landing pad. Nothing could be further from the truth. If he Mr. Hudak had taken the time to drive down Forest Road 573, he would have seen the HUNDREDS of acres of pines that were clear cut recently by a timber company. Was it just coincidence that this stand was chosen or is the Forest Service setting us up for more bad press by saying, “look at the area around Big Scrub. The four wheel drive folks and ATV users are tearing it up.” It is of Mr. Lint’s own decision to make the area look like a bombing range. Speaking of bombing ranges, if the Forest Service is so consumed by the noise that our engines make while loping down a trail at 10 mph, why have they not notified the United States Navy that they’ll have to find another location to drop their bombs, because we have to consider the feelings of the sandhill crane and her off spring, don’t we?

The Forest Service of the Ocala National Forest have perpetuated the problem of cross country travel by not adequately signing major routes and by not having enough personel to enforce or educate their travel policies and plans. It is a 30 to 40 minute drive from the extreme north end of the forest to the south end of the forest on S.R. 19. A nearly all day affair if you are to be driving on the Forest Roads. The members of the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association have tried to participate in the Volunteer Ranger program but the prerequisites the Forest Service demands are unrealistic for a volunteer group that travels to the Forest from areas as far north as Jacksonville and as far south as Naples.

The members of the Florida Four Wheel Drive Association, Inc., feel that Mr. Hudak’s article has demonized motorized recreation in the Ocala National Forest. In reality, motorized recreation “slipped up” on the Forest Service, and as we all know by now, the wheels of the federal bureaucracy move extremely slow. It has taken the Forest Service over twenty years to realize that motorized recreation exists on public lands.

I invite Mr. Hudak to join any of our member clubs on a trail ride to see first hand what it is that we do. We have also extended an invitation to Mr. Rick Lint but as of this writing has not taken us up on our offer. As a reminder to the readers, the Ocala National Forest is considered public land. That means my tax dollars along with your tax dollars are used to preserve and protect it. I’d say that the Forest Service has done a poor job on the “preserve and protect part”. After twenty years of neglect by federal agencies, the only answer they see now is removal.

Next time, try a fair and balanced article.
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