All of us pay the price when sports vehicles damage forest habitatIn every political fight, it is illuminating to examine who stands to gain financially, a rule that can be boiled down to "watch the money." The current fight over using all-terrain vehicles in the Mount Hood National Forest is a case in point.

Successful marketing resulted in at least 71,135 ATVs and 17,548 snowmobiles in Oregon in 2003, up from 28,999 ATVs and 9,619 snowmobiles in 1990. This huge expansion came in the face of heightened concerns about damage to forest wetlands, soil erosion into streams, disturbance to wildlife and production of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases.

Manufacturers not only create the off-road vehicles, they create a constituency sold on the idea that universal use of public lands is an entitlement. Together with makers, the owners of these expensive toys constitute a loud and powerful lobby in favor roaring through the woods.

This cash-fueled political machine has beat back efforts to keep snowmobiles out of Yellowstone National Park, and a like-minded coalition is working hard to keep Mount Hood as a publicly maintained motocross track.

Forest managers have been working to undo past mistakes by closing some roads through sensitive areas. They face a tough challenge, ironically considering ATV users comprise only about 1 percent of the forest's 4 million annual visitors.

National forests and other public lands, notably those controlled in the West by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, are governed by the philosophy of multiple-use. In theory, this means finding ways for forestry, mining, recreation and many other activities to coexist. Too often, because of weak-willed politicians and agencies, multiple-use really means "anything goes."

But as the West - especially the Pacific Northwest - grows more crowded, more conflicts are inevitable. Where 30 years ago a few thousand snowmobiles and dirt bikes roamed empty areas without causing much harm or irritation to those practicing quieter outdoor activities, today tens of thousands of vehicles push the boundaries of what is legally and aesthetically permissible.

An automatic right to go everywhere doesn't come with each new ATV and snowmobile. Mount Hood managers are right to begin keeping them out of sensitive areas. Ultimately, they should be confined to narrowly defined areas where the harm they do can be limited and where costs can be recovered through user fees.

The rest of us shouldn't have to pay for the sports of a few.


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