The Forest Service has launched an effort to find a recreation area for all-terrain vehicle users who were banned from the only land in Juneau legally open to them nearly four years ago.
The agency is recruiting members of the public to serve on a committee, which will help revise the federal Off-Road Vehicle Plan for Juneau and make recommendations on land that should open to ATVs.
"Our objective here is we're going to find an area for the ATV riders to use," said Ron Marvin, recreation staff officer for the Forest Service.
But some people embroiled in the controversial closure of the Mendenhall Valley's Dredge Lakes area to ATV riders in 1997 are questioning the agency's motives.
"It's just another ploy of delaying everything again," said Erin Heywood, of the Southeast Alaska Off-Road Riders Association, a Juneau group representing about 100 people.
Three years ago, a portion of the federally-owned Dredge Lakes area behind Back Loop Road was the only land legally open to ATV riders. At the time, approximately 200 acres of the 5,815-acre recreation area was allowed for ATV use. However, the Forest Service said some riders were illegally venturing beyond the area open to them and damaging the environment. In response, the Forest Service closed the entire area to off-road vehicles, saying they were degrading the visitor experience and damaging vegetation and shorebird habitat.
The decision was supported by some residents who said the vehicles were noisy and posed a safety threat to hikers. The Forest Service said it would help riders find a new location, Heywood said, but the only area open to ATVs now is the Mendenhall Lake, when it freezes in winter.
"Our bikes are collecting dust," she said.
The committee will include people from user groups and government agencies. Although the ATV group plans to participate on the panel, Heywood questioned its value. She said ATV riders met with representatives from the Forest Service, city and state shortly after the closure of Dredge Lakes to try and reach consensus on a new area for ATVs, but nothing ever came of the meeting.
"As soon as everybody left, boom, nothing. Absolutely nothing," said Heywood. "So this meeting again, brings back memories of that meeting."
Marvin, of the Forest Service, said the agency has had a lot of other priorities since the closure and that a shortage of staff and funding has delayed action on the ATV issue.
"We're now ready to deal with the ATV riding area," Marvin said. "We can argue about what happened in the past for a long time and that will never get us toward our goal. We need to move now and focus on the task at hand."
Marvin said it's possible the effort will prompt the Forest Service to reopen Dredge Lakes to off-road vehicles.
"That will be one of the areas I expect we will be looking at," he said.
The committee will include representatives from the general public, Juneau Nordic Ski Club, ATV riders, Juneau Snowmobile Club, Trail Mix, Alaska State Parks, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Forest Service and city of Juneau. The Forest Service expects to have a decision by January 2002.
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.