The recent month-long government shutdown was not the main thing prohibiting public access to our national forests. Not by a long shot.
Amy Granat is an avid outdoorswoman. She also has cancer and an autoimmune disease requiring her to undergo chemotherapy that caused infections in her legs and limited her ability to walk. She found a way to continue her outdoors pursuits by driving off-road vehicles on the many public routes in our national forests.
Without the use of off-road vehicles, she cannot access areas of the forests where nature is at its most powerful.
In particular, her ability to reach backcountry areas in Plumas National Forest near her home in Northern California is a key part of her medical rehabilitation.
These regenerative areas offer opportunities to experience the solace, awe, and inspiration provided by Mother Nature at her finest. But those unique opportunities are no longer available to Amy Granat.
The United States Forest Service (the Service) put a stop to her rehabilitation efforts by issuing a rule that drastically restricted motorized travel in our national forests. The Travel Management Rule made it illegal to use motorized vehicles in national forests unless a particular route was expressly permitted and designated on a map by the Service.
The Service closed about 90 percent of the routes in Plumas National Forest that Amy Granat had accessed by motor vehicle. Crutches, wheelchairs, canes, and leg braces don’t work in the deep recesses of the forest, and even Amy’s trusted service dog, Lukas, is unable to help her get there. As Amy is concerned, the Forest Service put a padlock on Plumas National Forest and shut her out.
Our national parks and forests were designed to be enjoyed by the public. For disabled people like Amy Granat, using motorized vehicles is the only way to do so. Families with small children face the same access problems, as do the elderly.
Undoubtedly, national lands serve the purpose of conservation, but that purpose has always been coextensive, and not superior to, public access rights. It is a good thing for government to protect the environment. But our environmental laws were never intended to keep humans out of the environment.
As a society, we need to arrive at a better balance between protecting natural resources and providing people with the opportunity to enjoy them.
Prior to the Travel Management Rule, the traditional presumption was that motorized travel was permitted in and on routes and trails in national forests unless there was evidence that restricting motorized use was necessary to avoid significant damage to the environment. This presumption respected the traditional balance between public access and conservation.
The Travel Management Rule flipped the presumption on its head and, in practice, became a method by which the federal government keeps people out of national forests by severely restricting motorized vehicle use.
Reforms are needed to ensure that all Americans, not just the most able-bodied among us, can reap the benefits of national parks and forests that are set aside for public use.
That’s why in December of last year, Amy Granat, leading a coalition representing approximately 20,000 individuals, filed an administrative petition with the Forest Service seeking greater motorized access to national forests for us all.
Federal administrative agencies are notorious for dragging their feet when faced with an administrative petition and, without public support, the one filed by Amy is unlikely to be an exception to the rule. The Forest Service is a branch of a vast federal bureaucracy, the United States Department of Agriculture, which is not known for its fleet-footedness.
Meanwhile, Amy’s medical rehabilitation is at a standstill because she cannot legally access the regenerative areas of Plumas National Forest on which she relies until the petition is granted. How long will she be required to wait?