By Matt Weiser
A congressional hearing in Sacramento on Monday provided a stage for complaints about the U.S. Forest Service, as off-roading groups, ranchers and others bemoaned access restrictions and steeper fees.
Held at the State Capitol, the field hearing by the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands featured just two of its 13 Republican members, including Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove. None of its 10 Democratic members attended.
The committee chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R- Utah, invited Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, to join the committee as a guest.
As is common at such hearings, the party controlling the committee weighted the witness list with individuals favorable to its legislative agenda. That includes GOP-backed bills to open more land to grazing and mining and to ban new national monuments.
The event was stacked with witnesses who want the Forest Service to reverse a modern-day emphasis on protecting habitat and recovering costs through steeper land-use fees.
A major focus of complaint was a national effort to regulate off-road vehicle use on forest lands.
Rules adopted by the George W. Bush administration in 2005 directed all national forests to designate off-road recreation routes so remaining roads could be abandoned or restored to improve habitat and water quality. Many of those routes were illegally created as the popularity of off-roading grew.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood, an invited panelist, elicited cheers from a crowd of more than 200 in attendance when he said he would not enforce forest road closures in his county.
"It is one of the most flagrant examples of federal overreach in recent memory," Hagwood said of the so-called Travel Management Program. "The Sheriff's Office will not create a new class of criminals out of our families and visitors who want nothing more than to enjoy their national forests."
Other witnesses bemoaned higher fees for events, such as motorcycle races in the El Dorado National Forest, and for long-term leases of private cabins on Forest Service land. In some cases, those leases have increased 10-fold, from about $1,000 a year to $10,000.
"The sum total of these policies seems more in line with the radical leftist agenda to dramatically limit access to these lands," McClintock said.
Regional Forester Randy Moore, who oversees national forests in California, said his agency is merely following federal laws passed by Congress that require his agency to charge lease-holders market rates for the benefits they receive from the private use of public land.
Another panelist, Sam Davidson, the California field director of Trout Unlimited, said the fees and access restrictions are meant to ensure visitors have a good experience when they reach their forest destination.
"Access is more than where you can or cannot drive," Davidson said. "It's about maintaining quality habitat."