GOP plan would open more public land

WASHINGTON -- Motorcyclists and ATV riders are revved up by a Republican plan that would remove restrictions on motorized access to 43 million acres of public land nationwide, while environmentalists say it would be a big mistake.

It's part of a broader debate on Capitol Hill over whether Congress should move to increase recreational opportunities on the nation's vast public land holdings.

"Our public lands are intended to be multi-use in order to give the public full access to America's great outdoors," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Hastings and other critics have long complained thatcurrent federal policies put far too much land off limits for motorized access, making it impossible for motorcyclists and snowmobilers to take their vehicles to remote wilderness areas.

Opponents of the legislation said it eventually could lead to opening up more public land to oil and gas extraction, mining and logging, among other things.

Jim Akenson of Joseph, Ore., the executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a nonprofit conservation group, told a House subcommittee Wednesday, "There are plenty of places to ride off-road vehicles" on public lands.

"However," he said, "we must also have places -- big, wild habitat -- that is completely separate from the noise and disturbance that comes from motorized traffic. ... Once our backcountry is gone, there's no getting it back."

Testifying before the Natural Resources' subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, representatives of off-highway vehicle groups from around the nation said it's time for Congress to loosen up the restrictions as a way to help their industry and the economy at the same time.

Dick Lepley, the owner of a dealership called Street Track 'N Trail in Conneaut Lake, Pa., and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association, said his dealership employs 50 people and pays more than $2 million in state and federal taxes in a good year.

"Clearly, the power sports industry contributes mightily to the nation's economy during both good times and bad, but regardless of the economy, nothing threatens dealerships and the industry at large like having no place to ride," Lepley said.

The bill's chief sponsor is the House's third-ranked Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.

"Millions of acres of land across the United States are being held under lock and key unnecessarily," he said when he introduced the legislation

He said his plan "is just common sense," adding that it would boost local economies and help create jobs. It would include public land that has been studied and recommended as not suitable for an official wilderness designation by either the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.

Scott Jones, a board member of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and vice president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said off-highway vehicle riders have played an important role in keeping local economies healthy.

-- Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com