Stopping off-road offenders
Deep in the tangle of dirt roads that connects Boca, Prosser and Stampede reservoirs, Susanne Jensen inspects an iridescent green meadow scarred deeply by off-road vehicle tracks.
“When people go in and muck up our meadows it just sets us back,” said Jensen, the off-highway vehicle specialist for the Truckee Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest.
Fortunately, as three quad runners ripped their tracks back and forth across the narrow green wetland earlier this spring, a passing motorist noticed the unlawful off-roading and reported the incident.
The Forest Service found the off-roaders and gave them a decision: Either restore the meadow or face federal charges for the damage.
Today the meadow is slowly healing, but only after the off-roaders filled in their tracks and placed boulders next to the meadow to block entry to the sensitive area.
But such a swift resolution is often evasive because an understaffed Forest Service patrol unit has hundreds of miles of off-road territory to cover. Much of the meadow damage is done without witnesses, and when it is discovered the off-roaders are often long gone.
“A lot of times the damage gets done when no one is around,” Jensen said.
Discovering and repairing damage to wetlands swiftly is important. If too much time passes, the ground is irreparably harmed. This year, with a wet spring, it is especially critical to keep out of sensitive habitat area, said Kris Boatner, a wildlife biologist for the Truckee Ranger District.
“The meadows are going to stay wetter longer,” she said. “I think we have a greater potential for damage this year.”
Jensen noted that if allowed to dry, ruts left behind by off-road tires “get solid as cement.”
The off-road patrol staff consists of Jensen and another officer, who cover both the Sierraville and Truckee ranger districts. So the federal agency is asking the public for help in stopping the off-road vehicle damage to meadows.
“We want to really encourage the public to get license plate numbers,” Jensen said.
With a license plate number, the observer can either call 911 or contact the Forest Service about the violation. Destroying the land, roads or vegetation is a crime, Jensen said. A fine for damaging the land is $250 plus a mandatory appearance in federal court, where the Forest Service normally seeks payment to rehabilitate the damage.
Off-road vehicles are also prohibited from leaving established routes in the forest.
Meadow damage destroys habitat for birds, bear, deer and amphibians. It can also demolish bird nests and animal burrows, Boatner said.
“[The meadows are] basically the only habitat for the song birds,” she said.
Deep tire tracks can also disrupt the natural water flows in an area, and eventually dry up portions of a meadow, according to the Forest Service.
Jensen, who has been patrolling the forests around Truckee since 1993, said the off-roading has grown exponentially, both in numbers and capabilities over the years.
“A lot of people are looking for a more challenging experience,” she said.
For those who want to test their driving abilities and the mettle of their four-wheel-drive vehicle, she said there is a place for that, it’s just not in the dirt roads near Boca, Prosser and Stampede reservoirs.
“That’s were the jacked-up pickups belong, out rock crawling on the Rubicon Trail, not mud-bogging in the forest,” Jensen said.
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