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A new California adventure

posted Jun 3, 2011, 11:57 AM by Tony Burgess
(lifted right from the Sheet, 6-3-2011 edition, FYI)
Noles, Gillespie push motorized trails access


Throughout Inyo County, the motorized recreation community is revving up for a potential pilot project that could designate certain county roads as dual-use. Pending legislation, Inyo County might soon have a five-year window to design and implement a plan that would allow all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to access county roads to reach existing off-road destinations.

Assembly Bill 628, sponsored by Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, is now moving on to the Senate after it passed by a 54-10 vote on the Assembly Floor Tuesday, May 31.

“These trails already exist and by joining them together, we can protect these scenic areas now and for generations to come. This will also help the local economy by encouraging off-road enthusiasts to visit Inyo County,” Conway said in a press release.

Dick Noles, president of Advocates for Access to Public Lands (AAPL), and Randy Gillespie, owner of Golden State Cycle in Bishop, spearheaded the project, which they have dubbed the Eastern Sierra Adventure Trails System.

If passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, Assembly Bill 628 would remove the 3-mile limit currently restricting the county from designating certain roads as ATV-accessible.

Conceivably, the system will give ATV drivers in Inyo County easier access to in-town goods and services, in addition to trailheads and campsites.

“The economic value that this could have for our county is overwhelming,” Gillespie said.

The proposed plan would permit ATVs to enter Inyo County towns on allocated roads to fill up on gas and buy food and then drive back to a campsite or trail. Noles said he hopes the project will promote more tourism. . The Chambers of Commerce in Bishop, Independence and Lone Pine have all jumped on board with the plan, seeing it as a potential economic boon for the area. If the bill passes, Gillespie said the project would be launched in Independence.

“Independence is starving for an economic boost,” Gillespie said. “They’re dying on the vine.”

Noles said that Inyo County wouldn’t be doing a new thing, but would just be jumping on the ATV bandwagon already established in states such as Utah, Arizona and West Virginia.

“We’re behind the times,” Noles said. “Everyone else is doing it. We’re not unique..”

Noles said that currently, California residents will drive all the way to Utah to access its adventure trails system. By making an in-state option for off-road recreation, tourist dollars can stay within the state.

In Utah, the Paiute ATV Adventure Trail System was established in 1990 and interconnects 16 communities. This 871-mile system also connects to the Great Western Trail, totaling 1,500 interconnected ATV-accessible miles linking communities. In 1995, more than 23,000 riders used the Paiute and GWT systems. By 2006, the number of riders tripled.

Studies by the Fishlake National Forest in Utah estimated that the Paiute Trail brought $8,492,880 into the local economy in 2006. Now, over 70 percent of the recreation and tourism-related questions directed to the Sevier County Travel Council are regarding the Paiute Trail System and ATVs.

Despite support the Eastern Sierra Adventure Trails project has received thus far, not everyone is on board. Notorious for their sometimes loud, droning engines, some see ATVs as nothing but an annoyance.

“I want to stress the fact that if [proponents of the bill] think this [project] is going to benefit the county financially, then they’re just not informed. It’s going to have the opposite effect,” said Karen Schambach, California Field Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Schambach said that as well-intended as the plan may be, most people who love exploring public lands are not off-roaders. According to a 2006 national visitor use monitoring survey for Inyo County, skiing, hiking, walking and fishing are the most popular outdoor recreation activities. More than 40 percent of those surveyed said they enjoy hiking and walking, compared to the 4 percent who said they enjoy ATV recreation.

“History has shown that case after case, when off-roaders take over an area, other people leave,” Schambach said. “People go to these places for peace and quiet, and if they can’t find that, they’ll find somewhere else to go.”

Noles said people misunderstand the plan if they’re under the assumption that the project will limit access to quiet places.

“Look at a map and you’ll see the hundreds of acres of wilderness that we have in our county,” Noles said. “It’s unreasonable that any group would have the audacity to say that if we drive around, people can’t have their quiet places, too.”

In a letter opposing ASB 628, 11 different groups from around the state highlighted the incomplete nature of the bill, citing that its vagueness could potentially create problems down the road. The opposition letter also stated that, “as a pilot project, it sets a dangerous precedent for all rural counties in the state.”

The groups opposing the bill are also concerned about a potential increase in noise and dust, saying the pilot project would make rural residents feel they couldn’t complain to law enforcement agencies about noise disturbance.

“It’s more than a nuisance. It’s a quality of life issue for rural residents,” Schambach said. “It’s a terrible thing to do to people in the country who live there for peace and quiet.”

Schambach said nothing in the bill requires that the project be evaluated for its impact on rural residents.

Proponents of the project contend that seeking feedback from rural residents is implicit in the bill. Gillespie said the pilot project has five years to work out the kinks. For example, if a certain road is included in the initial proposed map, but is found later to be a road that doesn’t make sense to keep in the system, the project coordinators will designate a different road. Through trial and error, all the details will be worked out in five years, Gillespie said.

Schambach said the bill does not indicate how roads would be undesignated, or under what specific circumstances. The bill also doesn’t specify whether the pilot project could be terminated and under what conditions. The opposition letter states, “It would be extremely difficult to deny use of roads to ATVs once they had been in use for several years.”

Noles and Gillespie said they see no reason why the pilot project wouldn’t be successful. Moreover, they said they can’t foresee any reason why the bill won’t be signed by the governor.

In contrast, Schambach said she would be amazed if Jerry Brown signed off on it. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill last year, she said, due to the state of the economy and the expenses that safety issues would generate for law enforcement.

She said that allowing ATV drivers to share the road with street-legal vehicles will inevitably be a safety hazard. The roads designated as dual-use would have a split speed limit, where ATVs would be restricted to 35 mph while other vehicles could drive at 45 mph. In addition to the obvious safety issues the split speed limit would create, Schambach said ATVs have a high center of gravity, are not easily visible by other drivers and don’t have turn signals. These factors make for an accident waiting to happen. She said that ATV collision with other vehicles is common for places that allow dual-use of roads.

“This project just creates another burden for law enforcement,” Schambach said.

People are supposed to stick to roads outlined on a map, she said, but inevitably, people will venture off those roads. Also, drivers are supposed to be licensed and insured, but Schambach said she wonders if law enforcement will stop every driver to check to see whether they’re driving legally.

Noles said that Inyo County Sherriff Bill Lutze and his deputies have agreed to provide law enforcement for the trails system. Funding for law enforcement has already been granted to the Inyo County Sherriff office, and four police ATVs will be designated specifically for monitoring the safe and legal use of the roads if the plan moves forward.

To be allowed to use the mapped roads in the Adventure Trails System, ATVs must have headlights, brake lights and a green tag. ATV riders must be at least 16 years old, hold a valid driver’s license, insurance, and must wear an approved helmet on roads where that is required. Also, ATV riders will only be permitted to drive during daylight hours.

Gillespie said that coordinators of the project want to teach riders to be responsible, respectful and reliable. Noles said that a code of ethics will be developed and riders will receive a sticker to put on their vehicle once they sign on and agree to obey the rules and regulations.

“We are going to have a very strong attitude about maintaining these roads and preserving our public lands,” Noles said. “We have full respect for wilderness, and we want to use it but not abuse it.”

Roads included in the trails system will be marked with signs and will also be mapped on GPS systems. Ideally in Bishop, Gillespie said, ATVs will be able to connect to Golden State Cycle, Vons, the city park and certain gas stations accessible via East Line Street, Spruce Street and Sierra Street. Roads that are slated to skirt the city include Fish Slough Road, Chalk Bluff Road, Casa Diablo, Sunland Drive, Airport Road, Wye Road, Tungsten City Road, Bir Road, Sawmill Road, Jean Blanc Road, and Schober Lane. Certain points will also be assigned for crossing over U.S. 395.

Gillespie said that he had the opportunity to take Connie Conwell and Republican State Senator Jean Fuller on a trial loop from Millpond out to the Tungsten Hills over Mule Days. He said they absolutely loved it. Gillespie quoted Conway with saying that she, “couldn’t wait to get back to Sacramento to tell everybody.”

If the bill passes through legislation, the project would officially start Jan. 1, 2012, although Gillespie said he imagined it could conceivably launch in the fall, given its nature as a pilot project.

Bishop City Council member Jeff Griffiths said that for the most part, he’s only heard generally positive feedback about the project, but that the bulk of the work will come through in the details. He said his intention would be for the public to receive full notice of where routes would go within the city limits to generate public comments.

“I hope that as the county goes forward, it will be a process that the public gets to be involved in,” Griffiths said. “The devil’s in the details.”

The collaborating agencies and organizations in support of the project include California Highway Patrol, Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, Inyo County Supervisors, Inyo County Road Department, Bishop City Council, Bishop Chamber of Commerce, Independence Chamber of Commerce, Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

The groups opposing the bill include Sierra Club California, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, Desert Protective Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.