Pryor, Ross Seek to Halt Implementation of Ouachita National Forest Travel Management Plan
U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and U.S. Representative Mike Ross, D-Ark., today requested that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack halt any implementation of the recently announced Ouachita National Forest (ONF) Travel Management Plan, citing its potential economic impacts on the area, and to ask ONF officials to re-engage with local and state officials to find a "common sense solution."
On January 4, 2010, the U.S. Forest Service released a Travel Management Plan for Ouachita National Forest eliminating most cross-country travel and considerably restricting access for off-highway vehicles (OHVs), including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The plan is currently scheduled to be implemented by early spring 2010. The announcement came after a 2005 travel management rule issued by the U.S. Forest Service calling for each of America's 155 national forests to designate a travel system for motorized vehicles.
"As an avid outdoorsman, I believe all Arkansans should have access to our public lands and that people should not be prohibited from riding ATVs in a responsible manner in national forests," said Ross. "I do not agree with the Ouachita National Forest's decision to severely limit the use of trails to off-highway vehicles, especially along the popular Wolf Pen Gap Trail System. Many local communities have developed tourism economies around trail riding and, given our current economic climate, this is not the time to implement policies that threaten much-needed jobs in our area."
"The Ouachita National Forest is a state treasure, and the tourism it attracts is an essential part of the economy in Mena and surrounding areas. Severely limiting the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on the Wolf Pen Gap trail system will restrict Arkansans' access to the forest and threaten jobs, and that's not good for anyone. I strongly believe that we can work together with Secretary Vilsack to create a plan that produces reasonable restrictions with reasonable access by incorporating scientific data and input from local communities," Pryor said.
On January 29, 2010, Ross and Pryor sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department oversees the U.S. National Forest Service, asking that he immediately suspend any implementation of the ONF Travel Management Plan until "local, state and federal officials have time to study the plan's economic impact." Ross and Pryor expressed particular concern about the plan's impact on Mena, which is still recovering from last spring's tornado, and other communities that have developed local tourism economies based on ATV usage. In particular, the plan severely restricts OHV access to the popular Wolf Pen Gap Trail System by closing 31 miles of loop trails, except on weekends and holidays between May 15 and Sept. 15.
The two Arkansas legislators also asked that ONF officials "engage with local officials and key stakeholders in the area in order to find a more common sense solution that maintains ATV ridership while sustaining the natural beauty and environmental health of our national forest."
The full text of the letter is included below:
January 29, 2010
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
We are writing to express our disappointment, frustration and serious concern over the recently released Ouachita National Forest Travel Management Plan and its impact on the residents of Arkansas. Not only do we believe the plan will have negative economic consequences on our local communities during these tough economic times, but we are also concerned about the development process for the plan, which has frustrated all who have worked diligently to draft a common sense solution. We are requesting an immediate, comprehensive review of this plan -- including its potential economic consequences -- and your personal attention to the process in which the plan was developed.
The Ouachita National Forest comprises almost 1.4 million acres in Arkansas, most of which is located in the Fourth Congressional District, which I represent in the U.S. House of Representatives. On January 4, 2010, Ouachita National Forest Supervisor Norm Wagoner signed a travel management plan that would drastically reduce motor vehicle and off highway vehicle travel in the forest. We believe these restrictions will have a tremendous impact on Arkansas residents, small businesses and a great number of tourists who visit the national forest from neighboring states.
This impact will be felt no greater than in Mena, Arkansas. Early last year Mena was devastated by an EF-3 tornado. As Mena continues to rebuild, it faces economic uncertainty with the implementation of this travel management plan. In recent years, Mena's economy has benefitted greatly from hosting all terrain vehicle (ATV) riders and other visitors to the Ouachita National Forest and, in particular, the Wolf Pen Gap Trail.
Constructed in 1991 by the United States Forest Service, the Wolf Pen Gap Trail allows ATV riders to access an array of areas in the Ouachita National Forest, including high mountain vistas, scenic Gap Creek and Board Camp Creek. The trail features forests of large pines and hardwoods and the trail system loops are connected to accommodate riders who want to vary the length of their trips. The trail allows riders to experience the best Ouachita National Forest has to offer.
With the initial encouragement of the United States Forest Service, a tourism industry based on ATV usage has flourished. In recent years, the forest has hosted an estimated 17,000 annual ATV riders, including many from the surrounding states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas. With the newly signed travel management plan, the Forest Service has taken drastic measures to completely restrict forest access to ATV riders.
City and county officials and local business owners have made repeated requests in recent years to work with the Forest Service to develop a system of trails that will preserve ATV ridership while encouraging strong environmental stewardship, serving the interests of the Forest Service and the needs of the local community. Arkansans understand that the Ouachita National Forest provides them with an economic benefit and want to ensure that its unique beauty is preserved for future generations.
Therefore, we hereby request the implementation of the Ouachita National Forest Travel Management Plan be suspended immediately until local, state and federal officials have time to study the plan's economic impact. In the meantime, we encourage Ouachita National Forest officials to engage with local officials and key stakeholders in the area in order to find a more common sense solution that maintains ATV ridership while sustaining the natural beauty and environmental health of our national forest.