The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Hampered by lean budgets and growing responsibilities, federal land management agencies have struggled in recent years to keep up with the rising popularity of off-highway vechicle use on public land, congressional investigators said in a report Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office said OHV use on public land has grown during the past five years, while the response by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management has been limited by dwindling resources and growing responsibilities.

The three agencies, which oversee 530 million acres, all reported to the GAO that the main challenge to managing OHV recreation was having too few employees to enforce existing regulations. The report pointed to the BLM's office in Grand Junction, Colo., where a single law enforcement officer patrols 1.3 million acres.

"Law enforcement officers have many responsibilities including, among others, enforcing OHV regulations, controlling gang activity, preventing illegal drug activities, and responding to impacts on resources and public safety from illegal smuggling activities along the U.S. border," the report said.

Larry Smith, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, said federal actions haven't been adequate to meet the growing popularity of off-road recreation.

The report suggests "that OHV recreation is not sustainable unless we have the adequate financial resources and personnel to deal with it," he said.

"It's just like highways. Without proper maintenance and personnel, sustainability becomes an issue," Smith said.

The report is based on surveys of land managers from across the country, interviews with interest groups and reviews of existing OHV policies. It said both authorized and unauthorized OHV use generally increased on federal lands from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2008.

The increase can be attributed to population growth near federal lands along with the popularity of OHV recreation, the agencies said. In some areas, officials also reported increases because of OHV closures on nearby state and private lands.

While acknowledging that off-roading is a legitimate way to enjoy public lands, some critics have complained that OHVs can cause erosion, damage wildlife habitat and spread noxious weeds.

The report points to the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, where forest officials have documented erosion problems, and the BLM's Phoenix district, where desert tortoise habitat has been impacted.

Most land managers said damage associated with off-roading occurred on less than 20 percent of the lands they manage, the GAO report said. But a few officials in the field reported that 80 percent or more of their lands were affected.

OHV enthusiasts said the GAO report backs up their contention that things aren't as bad as conservationists claim.

Daniel Patterson, the southwest director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, argued that the Forest Service and BLM management continue to make decisions and develop land use plans that authorize OHV use beyond the agencies' management abilities.

The GAO report stated: "Although they reported taking a variety of actions to manage OHV use in this environment, agency field unit officials reported that they cannot sustainably manage their OHV route systems."

Brian Hawthorne, the public lands policy director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, said that statement can be applied to any program overseen by the agencies.

"There might be some good that comes out of this GAO report," he said. "Congress needs to step up here and fund the agencies properly. They're woefully underfunded."

The GAO recommends that land managers improve planning and set time tables for meeting recreation goals on public lands, and improve communication with the public and enhance enforcement efforts.

Enforcement, including stiff fines, is something both conservationists and OHV enthusiasts support.

"We want to see rangers on bikes, we want to see them on quads, we want to see them in four-wheel drives. We want them out where the problems are, citing the guys who are doing the bad stuff," Hawthorne said.

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