Conservation Groups Settle Lawsuit with National Park Service, Protect National Parks From Illegal Off-Road Vehicle Use

Date:   May 22, 2008
Contact:   Mary Munson, National Parks Conservation Association, cell: 954-309-9306
Sarah Peters, Wildlands CPR, 406-543-9551
Danielle Fugere, Friends of the Earth, 415-577-5594
Robert Rosenbaum, Arnold & Porter LLP, 301-802-1482

Conservation Groups Settle Lawsuit with National Park Service, Protect National Parks From Illegal Off-Road Vehicle Use

New Pilot Program in 10 Parks Will Provide Visitor Education, Increased Law Enforcement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Bluewater Network, a division of Friends of the Earth; the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA); and Wildlands CPR today announced that they have reached a settlement agreement with the National Park Service. The settlement seeks to address the damage caused by rampant, illegal use of off-road vehicles in the National Park System and resolves claims in a lawsuit filed in 2005 by these organizations.

“Recent media reports have highlighted the damage caused by illegal off-road vehicle use on public lands, including some of our most sensitive national parks,” said Danielle Fugere of Friends of the Earth. “The National Park Service has confirmed that these problems exist, and by this settlement, the agency can begin to address illegal off-road vehicle use.”

Under the settlement, the Park Service will implement a pilot public education and deterrence program at 10 national parks. To help stop illegal use of off-road vehicles, those 10 parks will conduct special public outreach, education, and enforcement activities over the next three years, including officer training and working to set fines high enough to create a deterrence.

The 10 national parks participating in the pilot program are: Big Thicket National Preserve, Tex.; Death Valley National Park, Calif.; Joshua Tree National Park, Calif.; New River Gorge National River/Gauley River National Recreation Area, W.Va.; Ozark National Scenic Riverway, Mo.; Parashant National Monument, Ariz.; Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Calif.; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Mich.; St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Wis.; and Wupatki /Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments, Ariz.

The success of this pilot program may serve as a model that can be adopted by other national park sites across the country to curb harmful, illegal use of off-road vehicles.

The settlement also requires the Park Service to follow the law and develop environmental impact statements and special rules governing the ongoing, legal use of off-road vehicles at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah, and Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina. And the settlement requires similar action before the Park Service can permit off-road vehicles at Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas or at Big South Fork National Recreation Area in Tennessee.

“Improved enforcement strategies provide a welcome step in the right direction to help resolve the problem of illegal off-road vehicle use in the National Park System,” said Sarah Peters of Wildlands CPR.

In parks where the Park Service has lawfully authorized use of off-road vehicles, the settlement neither condones such use nor further restricts the legal use of these machines. It does, however, require the agency to reinforce its commitment to resource protection by reminding superintendents that they have the power to terminate or suspend such permission if there are concerns about damage to park trails or other resources, or if a park doesn’t have sufficient law enforcement capacity to monitor and manage off-road vehicle use. These parks must also openly display the rules designating where off-road vehicles may lawfully operate so visitors are made aware.

“By this settlement, the Park Service has acknowledged that widespread illegal off-road vehicle use in the National Park System must be brought under control if parks are to be spared the significant damage these vehicles cause, ” said Robert Rosenbaum of Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, counsel for the plaintiffs and primary negotiator on the settlement. “And where the Park Service has lawfully permitted such vehicles, the settlement emphasizes to the Park Service that it nevertheless has an ongoing obligation to protect those parks’ resources.”

The plaintiffs initially filed a rulemaking petition in 1999 requesting that the Park Service take action to prevent off-road vehicle damage in the national parks. After meetings between the plaintiffs and the Park Service in July 2004, the agency conducted an internal survey of illegal, off-road vehicle use at all national park sites. The 256 responses made available to the plaintiffs demonstrate that off-road vehicles are causing widespread damage in America’s national parks.

At Joshua Tree National Park in California, for instance, park managers reported that off-road vehicles are often illegally used on park trails—risking the safety of visitors enjoying those same trails on foot or on horseback. Today, miles of tire ruts scar the park’s fragile desert landscape.

“Due to chronic funding shortfalls, the Park Service has struggled to enforce the rules on the books to protect the treasures in many national parks, and the safety and experiences of visitors,” said NPCA President Tom Kiernan. “We’re pleased that the Park Service has agreed to this settlement. Coupled with Congress and the Administration’s continued investment in our national parks, it will help to protect these national treasures for our children and grandchildren.”

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