Federal Lands:

Enhanced Planning Could Assist Agencies in Managing Increased Use of Off-Highway Vehicles

GAO-09-509: Published: Jun 30, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2009.

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Off-highway vehicle (OHV) use on lands managed by the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (Park Service) has become popular over the past few decades. Some critics have asserted that OHV use causes adverse environmental, social, and safety impacts, while proponents have voiced concerns about retaining access to federal lands. GAO examined the (1) trends in and status of OHV use on federal lands, as well as reported environmental, social, and safety impacts; (2) agencies' strategic planning for managing OHV use; (3) actions taken by agency field units to manage OHV use; and (4) current OHV management challenges. GAO collected and analyzed related executive orders and agency OHV plans, regulations, and guidance; interviewed agency and interest group officials; and conducted a Web-based survey of all three agencies' field unit officials.

OHV use on federal lands--both authorized and unauthorized--increased from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2008, with varying environmental, social, and safety impacts, according to officials from all three agencies. All three agencies reported that OHVs are predominantly used on their lands for OHV recreation, such as trail and open-area riding. Most Park Service officials said that OHV use constitutes less than 10 percent of the recreation on their lands. Most officials from all three agencies also said that OHV-related environmental impacts occur on less than 20 percent of their lands, although a few said that such impacts occur on 80 percent or more of their lands. Most officials said that social and safety impacts, such as conflicts with nonmotorized users, occasionally or rarely occurred. Forest Service and BLM plans for OHV management are missing key elements of strategic planning, such as results-oriented goals, strategies to achieve the goals, time frames for implementing strategies, or performance measures to monitor incremental progress. For example, the Forest Service's strategic plan has no strategies to address key aspects of OHV management, such as communicating with the public or enforcing OHV regulations. Similarly, while BLM's recreation plan contains strategies addressing key aspects of OHV management, the agency has not identified time frames for implementing these strategies or performance measures for monitoring progress. The Park Service has no extensive planning for managing OHV use, but this absence seems reasonable given that its regulations limit OHV use to only a few units and OHV use is not a predominant recreational activity on its lands. While agencies' field units have taken many actions to manage OHV use, additional efforts could improve communication and enforcement. In particular, units have taken actions such as supplementing federal funds with outside resources like state grants, communicating with the public by posting signs and maps, and enforcing OHV regulations by occasionally patrolling OHV areas and writing citations for OHV violations. Few officials, however, indicated that their unit had signs and maps for nearly all of their OHV areas. Additionally, while most field unit officials said that they conduct enforcement activities, such as writing citations, about half indicated that fines are insufficient to deter illegal or unsafe OHV use. In addition, a majority of officials reported they cannot sustainably manage their existing OHV use areas; sustainable management would include having the necessary human and financial resources to ensure compliance with regulations, educate users, maintain OHV use areas, and evaluate the OHV program. Officials identified numerous challenges in managing OHV use, of which the most widely identified were insufficient financial resources, as well as staff for OHV management and enforcement. In addition, most officials cited enforcement of OHV regulations as a great challenge. Other challenges were maintaining signs, managing the public's varied expectations about how federal lands should be used, and changing long-established OHV use patterns.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve communication with the public and enhance law enforcement efforts regarding OHV use on federal lands, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and BLM, respectively, to examine fine amounts across various U.S. district courts to determine the range of fines for OHV-related violations and petition appropriate judicial authorities to make modifications where warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to a Forest Service official, actions have been taken in five Forest Service regions to assess the fine amounts for OHV-related violations. Two regions determined that OHV fines were appropriate and three regions identified U.S. district courts within their regions with low fine amounts for OHV-related violations. All three of these regions petitioned the relevant U.S. district courts for increases, which were granted in some cases.

    Recommendation: To improve communication with the public and enhance law enforcement efforts regarding OHV use on federal lands, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and BLM, respectively, to enhance communication with the public about OHV trails and areas through, for example, developing user-friendly signs and maps to improve visitors' experiences.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service developed a web-based interactive map system which includes more features than their paper-based Motor Vehicle Use Maps. For example, the web-based maps include rivers, lakes, and topographic lines and allow users to search for trails by the type of motorized travel they plan to do. Forest Service officials voluntarily choose to input information into the web-based system. As of May 2013, Forest Service officials said that information for 29 Forests had been entered into the web-based system and information is being added for more than 50 additional forests.

    Recommendation: To improve communication with the public and enhance law enforcement efforts regarding OHV use on federal lands, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and BLM, respectively, to enhance communication with the public about OHV trails and areas through, for example, developing user-friendly signs and maps to improve visitors' experiences.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: BLM officials provided several examples of enhanced communication with the public. Specifically, BLM field offices have been directed to develop sign plans for OHV areas as travel and transportation management plans are completed. For example, the Barstow Field Office in California is planning to install up to 22 new informational kiosks in their popular OHV area to provide more information to the public. BLM officials also described using partnerships with stakeholder groups to increase awareness of responsible OHV riding among hunters, fishermen, and recreational shooters. In one such partnership with the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, BLM worked with OHV users on Montana to build new fences, install information kiosks and signs, and create a numbering system for trails in a popular OHV area.

    Recommendation: To help provide quality OHV recreational opportunities while protecting natural and cultural resources on federal lands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to enhance the agency's existing "Priorities for Recreation and Visitor Services" by establishing performance measures and time frames for carrying out its stated goals for OHV recreation.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: BLM's "2020 Travel and Transportation Management Vision" document, dated April 2013 includes performance measures and timeframes for conducting travel management planning for off road vehicle use. For example, as of 2012, BLM had completed 151 travel management plans on more than 36 million acres, and identified an additional 447 travel management plans that will need to be completed, covering more than 212 million acres. By 2020, BLM has a goal of completing 79% of these needed plans, covering 159 million acres. BLM's "2020 Travel and Transportation Management Vision" document acknowledges the importance of implementing these plans once they are developed by setting a goal of implementing each plan within 2 to 5 years after it is finalized. Such implementation includes signing, enforcement, monitoring, route rehabilitation or restoration, and communication of travel management decisions to OHV users through maps and responsible-use education.

    Recommendation: To help provide quality OHV recreational opportunities while protecting natural and cultural resources on federal lands, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to identify additional strategies to achieve the agency's goal of improving OHV management, as well as time frames for carrying out the strategies and performance measures for monitoring incremental progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2010, the Forest Service published guidance to assist Forest Service employees responsible for managing OHV use and implementing individual forests' Motor Vehicle Use Maps. The guidance identified four key areas to be addressed: education, engineering, enforcement, and evaluation. For each of these areas, the guidance identifies desired outcomes and key tasks that can be performed to help achieve those outcomes. For example, a desired education outcome is widespread adoption of safe and responsible OHV use and key tasks that could help achieve this outcome include developing an education plan that identifies key audiences and effective delivery methods. In March 2013, the Forest Service finalized performance measures that will be tracked on a forest-by-forest basis each fiscal year beginning in FY13. For example, one performance measure is whether or not the forest has developed and implemented an education or communication strategy.

    Recommendation: To improve communication with the public and enhance law enforcement efforts regarding OHV use on federal lands, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and BLM, respectively, to examine fine amounts across various U.S. district courts to determine the range of fines for OHV-related violations and petition appropriate judicial authorities to make modifications where warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, BLM headquarters requested information from all BLM state offices about fine amounts for OHV-related violations. According to BLM officials, all state offices responded and when the data was analyzed, BLM determined that, in many cases, the fines were too low to provide an effective deterrent. In January 2012, BLM headquarters issued guidance instructing state offices to request revisions to the fine amounts. Subsequently, fine amounts in the U.S. District Courts of Alaska, Central California, Colorado, and Utah were updated as requested, and requests are pending in other District Courts around the country.

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