Thursday, January 11, 2007

Forest officials set sights on ATVs

A dozen people may face 50 federal charges for illegally riding ATVs on federal land.

It was a clear night, near the end of December, with temperatures heading below freezing. Teddy Mullins, a law enforcement officer with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, was watching lights dance on Pearis Mountain.

The lights weren't supposed to be there.

So Mullins used his government-issued vehicle to block the trail that leads up the mountain and headed through the Giles County forest on foot.

"We had had it under surveillance off and on for 18 months," said Capt. Woody Lipps, Mullins' supervisor. "We just never were able to catch anybody there."

But Mullins caught 12 people and impounded seven all-terrain vehicles. The dozen people may face 50 federal charges.

It's illegal to ride an ATV in most of the national forest. It's illegal to cut trees there without permission. It's illegal to damage soil, water or plant life there.

Mullins found trees felled and a trail cut through the woods. One ATV was covered in mud and rhododendron leaves.

"We don't have any proof that these were the people who have been building that trail all the time," Lipps said. "But these are the ones we caught."

They were young, Lipps said, mostly 18 to 22. Some of them had just gotten an ATV for Christmas. In the past, they might have been allowed to keep their Christmas presents. The forest service rarely seized law-breaking vehicles.

"We haven't been, but we're changing that," Lipps said.

There's no federal law that specifically authorizes his officers to seize ATVs, Lipps said, but they have the right to seize evidence. And an ATV that's where it's not supposed to be is evidence.

Often, officers find an ATV or two in the woods, and wait for a hunter to claim them. Almost as often, the hunters who eventually amble down the trail claim the machines aren't theirs.

"We're just going to start taking them," Lipps said. "When your $3,000 or $4,000 or $6,000 machine turns up missing and you come to the National Forest Service looking for it, we'll be happy to see that you get it back. But not until you've gotten your ticket."

It's not illegal to ride ATVs and off-road motorcycles everywhere in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Four areas offer a total of 75 miles of trails. The closest is a 17-mile trail near Eagle Rock in Botetourt County. Lipps said there are probably 500 miles of illegal ATV trails in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

ATVs and motorcycles also turn up on the 2,000 miles of trails the forests have for hikers, mountain bike riders and horses, though they shouldn't.

"If you're not in one of those four areas, you ain't supposed to be there," Lipps said.

The National Forest Service has declared, "Motor vehicles are a legitimate and appropriate way for people to enjoy their national forests -- in the right places, and with proper management."

Every national forest has to designate trails for motorized vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles. In the past, some restricted off-road vehicles to trails. Some allowed them virtually universal access.

"Virginia Forest Watch thinks ATVs are inappropriate for public land," said Sherman Bamford, the group's public lands coordinator. "They do so much damage and right now the forest service is not able to do that much in the way of enforcement."

Traditionally, 12 officers patrol the 3,018 miles of roads and 2,000 miles of trail in the forest's 1.8 million acres. But three officers retired, so now there are nine.

"We're going to pretty soon have 10," Lipps said.

In addition to the damage ATVs and motorcycles can do to the forest, they can ruin a wilderness experience for other people.

"One of the problems is the amount of ground they can cover in a day," Bamford said. "They take up a lot of room and the noise just spreads out."

Annie Malone, who rides horses in the national forest near the Smyth County community of Sugar Grove, is glad they do make noise.

"The saving grace of the internal combustion engine is it's loud," she said. "You can hear it coming."

Malone was riding with friends when they heard a high-pitched whine heading down the mountain. They trotted their horses back up the trail and moved to the side. About a minute later, a dirt bike came around a curve, leaning at a 45-degree angle.

"He was an awfully good rider, a very talented rider," Malone said. "He kind of did a little doughnut and headed back up the trail the way he came."

That rider met up with a group of motorcycles behind him and they all roared back up the mountain.

"I don't see why they don't buy a big patch of private land and screw that up rather than damage the commons to the extent they do," Malone said. "I would hope it's that they're not aware of the damage that they're doing. But how can they not be?"

The first time a person gets caught riding in the national forest illegally, they don't have to go to court. They can simply pay a fine of about $150. The second time is a much bigger deal. It requires an appearance in federal court and could mean a fine of $5,000 or six months in jail.

"We don't get too many repeat offenders," Lipps said. "Most probably because it's hard to catch them the first time."

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