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Support for ATV trails project mixed

August 8, 2014

Inyo County Transportation Planner Courtney Smith at Wednesday's Planning Commission hearing. Photo by Charles James

Residents and visitors weighed in Wednesday on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the ATV Adventure Trails of the Eastern Sierra Project which, if implemented in a pilot project for two years, may allow ATV riders to travel from campsites and campgrounds to local stores, services and OHV trails using surface streets with restrictions.
Public input was gathered during a hearing hosted by the Inyo County Planning Commission in Independence. A public workshop followed that evening at City Hall in Bishop.
California State Assembly Bill 628 granted a pilot extension to Inyo County to increase OHV access on county surface streets from 3 to 10 miles to meet the conditions found in Inyo County.
The program has the wide support of many local business owners and county residents, but there are some residents and groups that do not share in the enthusiasm, most often citing noise, safety issues, environmental damage, and misbehavior by ATV riders, along with a host of other concerns.
The DEIR for Adventure Trails prepared by Meridian Consultants is an 800-plus page document in which several alternative road maps are shown depending on just how much the county decides is appropriate after hearing concerns and issues that the plan might create for some residents. Copies of the DEIR report can be viewed at the Public Works departments in Bishop and in Independence as well as the Inyo County Free Library in Independence, Lone Pine, Bishop or Big Pine. It is also posted online at the county website: www.inyocounty.us/ab628/DraftEnvironmental ImpactReport.htm.
Inyo County Transportation Planner Courtney Smith started the hearing with some general comments and background about the program, explaining the assembly bill and its requirements, and then giving a summary of actions to date, from December of 2012 when the plan was approved by the county to now.
Meridian consultant Joe Gibson took the commissioners through a slide presentation that gave a summary of potential environmental impacts, mitigation measures and project alternatives required by the California Environmental Quality Act, covering a reduction of routes based on environmental constraints, reductions based on the California Highway Safety Analysis, seasonal route closures, removal of routes to or crossing into the Inyo National Forest and a phased Pilot Project Designation.
After the presentation by the consultant and answering questions from the commissioners, the public was allowed to comment.
Michael Prather of Lone Pine told the commissioners that he and his wife purchased a home in Alabama Hills specifically for its openness, scenic views and quiet. He said he was worried about change to towns and neighborhoods that may go from camping, fishing and hiking to one of intense motorized recreation. He noted there is little or no enforcement on the lands owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Land Management. “There is a lot of irresponsible riding,” Prather said. “The program needs to include education for the public and in schools. In the area we live, we do not support machines against nature.” He made the suggestion for signage to read: “Riders please respect the land and others. Ride responsibly.”
Steve Toomey with Advocates for Access to Public Lands said, “We are looking to put in a responsible track that goes from Bishop to Lone Pine. One of the objectives of the project is to keep users more responsible.” Another objective, he explained, is to increase tourism and educate tourists on where to go. Toomey noted that most tourists just want to go out on a loop and come back, share their experience and go home. “All the towns are dying, and we need tourism,” Toomey said, “and OHV use is the biggest tourism segment that has been ignored in the county.” He concluded, “There are communities in Utah and Idaho that are thriving with this type of program.”
Steve McLaughlin of Birch Creek lives in Aberdeen off Route 3. “It is impossible to predict human behavior,” he said, “but assumptions can be made by current behavior. And currently users of all ages are driving along Aberdeen Route 3 during day and night at excessive speeds.” He is concerned about reckless behavior and that
evidence is needed that signage would mitigate irresponsible behavior. McLaughlin expressed concern about noise and dust and that OHV trails might proliferate. He also labeled the DEIR as weak and not addressing community scoping comments. He said this program will have adverse impacts on Birch Creek.
Doug Parham of Lancaster told commissioners that he has first-hand experience of OHV use as he worked on the West Mojave Plan, which is a federal land use plan amendment adopted in 2006. He said that the BLM was sued for not fulfilling its environmental responsibilities and admitted that it cannot control OHV use. “OHV use reflects a decadent youth culture,” said Parham, “that will precipitate festivals and clubs using trails, and barhopping on ATVs.”
Parham went on to suggest that the DEIR address education or mandatory testing of users to use trails, noting that mandatory tests have been successfully implemented in Ridgecrest. Finally he said that the economic benefit of the program has never been adequately analyzed and that in WEMO (2003), there was an economic component that showed that out of 2 million visits per year, there might be an increase of 140 jobs paying $15,000 a year. He noted that the consultants appear to be advocates of the program rather than neutral.
The California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Karen Schamback, told the commissioners that the DEIR had many internal inconsistencies, listing a number of them. She felt that forcing OHV use onto neighborhood streets would diminish the quality of life. Schamback noted that the Air Control District requested to be included as a responsible agency, but was not included as one … and that the plan increases emissions.
“Most people come for clean and quiet beauty of the region, which is not compliant with this plan,” she said, “and there is no discussion about impacts on other recreation.” She said that the DEIR does not mention the number of tourists who come for other reasons, besides OHV use. She went on to list other issues with the DEIR and ended by saying that it is “internally inconsistent and the project fails to meet project objectives of economic development.”
Tom Budlong of Los Angeles noted that the ATV Safety Institute offers the following advice: Not to ride on paved roads … and that ATVs intended for off-road use should not be driven on pavement as it seriously affects handling and control.
“This project was developed by the Americans for Access to Public Lands, which specifically means motorized access. When AB 628 was passed, the state added a section to the vehicle code indemnifying the state, and designated Inyo County as liable,” he said, adding, “the program will displace hikers, equestrians, star gazers, birders and other recreation.”
Jaque Hickman of Lone Pine told the commissioners, “It is always difficult to accept change in communities,” noting that, “currently, there is a level of discomfort in Inyo County communities regarding economic downturn. This project is not an economic boost in terms of housing, but it will sustain the economy.” Noting that lots of irresponsible actions were discussed today, she said that there must be a way to discuss responsible guests; her campground at Boulder Creek has many responsible guests, she said. Hickman said that while there are issues with public campgrounds, perhaps more education is needed at those sites. She concluded, “This program is intended to bring ATV users into communities, not expand use of OHVs. We need to identify ways to make this plan accessible. I encourage the commission to talk to businesses.”
The owner of recently closed Golden State Cycle in Bishop, Randy Gillespie, spoke to the commission on the Adventure Trails Project vision, which he says, “was inspired by where these types of programs are happening in other states, such as the Paiute Trail in Utah. It links 16 towns there and 96 percent of income coming into communities is associated with the Paiute Trail.” He said this is an inspiration and that he would like to see that vision come to Inyo County.
“I will continue to advocate for Adventure Trails because it is important to bring economic growth into the community. ATV users have an income bracket that is pretty high. They should be educated about where they can go to have a good time … this project would educate tourists about where to go, and send them on a loop trail that brings them back into town.”
Gillespie explained that tourism dollars are circulated 7.5 times in the communities, so each tourist dollar is the equivalent of $7.50. He concluded, “It is important to attract tourists. People come here to access public lands. Please consider and bring this project forward. It makes economic sense.”
Kathleen New, the CEO for the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, told the commission, “I feel strongly both ways. The chamber has supported the plan through the process. It will not bring millions of dollars, but every economic bit is important.” New said 3 percent of users are the problem, and “they need to be educated.” She said that it is easy for people to move here and then turn around and say no one else can. “We need to have people coming here to recreate. We have had to give in to letting people come here over time … Most people will follow the rules, and only a few will not.” She ended by telling the commissioners that “the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and Kathleen New support the Adventure Trails Project.”
The final public speaker was Bruce Cotton, the state coordinator for Veteran Warriors.
“I have been through safety courses for ATVS – and I have heard people talking about mitigations and people ignoring them. People ignore rules all the time. There will be similar problems with ATVs; there is no control except for people to ride responsibly and to enforce the law. ATV users can peer-regulate.
“Veterans are excited for the trail system so they can get out in public lands with their families. Veterans want to get out the city and out their houses and come to Inyo County to ride these trails. They ride responsibly because they are disabled. We can educate users in Inyo County. This plan is on already-established roads, and I want to be able to go from destination to destination with my family. I can’t hike or ride horses, but I still want to get into the country, and this is true with other veterans as well.”
On that note, the hearing on the DEIR for The Adventure Trail Project ended.

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