- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

ROANOKE (AP) — Officer Teddy Mullins, who patrols the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, saw lights on Pearis Mountain that he knew shouldn’t be there.

The surveillance in late December resulted in 50 federal charges against 12 persons caught riding all-terrain vehicles, which are illegal in much of the national forest. Seven of the machines were impounded.

“We had had it under surveillance off and on for 18 months,” Capt. Woody Lipps said. “We just never were able to catch anybody there.”

The riders were mostly 18 to 22 years old, and many had just received their ATVs for Christmas.

Although there is no federal law that specifically authorizes officers to seize ATVs, Capt. Lipps said they have the right to seize evidence.

“We’re just going to start taking them,” Capt. Lipps told the Roanoke Times. “When your $3,000 or $4,000 or $6,000 machine turns up missing and you come to the National Forest Service looking for it, we’ll be happy to see that you get it back. But not until you’ve gotten your ticket.”

In the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, four areas offer a total of 75 miles of trails for ATVs and off-road motorcycles. Capt. Lipps said there are probably 500 miles of illegal ATV trails in the contiguous forests — called the George Washington National Forest north of the James River and Jefferson National Forest south of the James River.

Every national forest has to designate trails for motorized vehicles such as ATVs and trail bikes.

From October 2005 to October 2006, the Forest Service logged 299 reports of ATV use in the national forests. Criminal charges were filed in 135 cases, and 38 written warnings were issued.

“Virginia Forest Watch thinks ATVs are inappropriate for public land,” said Sherman Bamford, the group’s public lands coordinator. “They do so much damage, and right now the Forest Service is not able to do that much in the way of enforcement.”

Traditionally, 12 officers patrol the 3,018 miles of roads and 2,000 miles of trail in the forests’ 1.8 million acres. The retirement of three officers reduced that number.

In addition to the damage ATVs and motorcycles can do to the forest, they can ruin other people’s wilderness experience.

“One of the problems is the amount of ground they can cover in a day,” Mr. Bamford said. “They take up a lot of room, and the noise just spreads out.”

Annie Malone, who rides horses in the national forest near the Smyth County community of Sugar Grove, is glad the vehicles make noise.

“The saving grace of the internal-combustion engine is it’s loud,” she said. “You can hear it coming.”

Still, she said, “I don’t see why they don’t buy a big patch of private land and [mess] that up rather than damage the commons to the extent they do. I would hope it’s that they’re not aware of the damage that they’re doing. But how can they not be?”

The first time a person gets caught riding in the national forest illegally, he doesn’t have to go to court. He can pay a fine of about $150. The second time requires an appearance in federal court and could result in a fine of $5,000 or six months in jail.

“We don’t get too many repeat offenders,” Capt. Lipps said. “Most probably because it’s hard to catch them the first time.”

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