SONORA -- A federal judge has ordered the Stanislaus National Forest to rework its rules for off-highway vehicles to better protect the environment.
Judge Kimberly Mueller, ruling in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, agreed with three environmental groups that the rules adopted in 2009 need closer scrutiny.
The ruling does not immediately affect access to the forest, but it does direct the U.S. Forest Service and the groups to discuss an "appropriate remedy" at a Feb. 15 hearing.
The groups had sued in 2010 on the grounds that the rules would allow off-roading at levels that threaten streams and wildlife and disturb forest visitors who prefer quiet recreation.
"This decision confirms that the Forest Service needs to do a better job of protecting the forest and its streams and wildlife from these damaging machines," said Erin Tobin, an attorney with a law firm called Earthjustice, in a news release Monday.
The San Francisco-based firm handled the lawsuit for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte and two national groups the Wilderness Society and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder said the staff "will be reviewing the ruling over the next few weeks, then determine what our next steps will be."
The Stanislaus is popular for the vehicles because of its many asphalt, gravel and dirt routes and its proximity to Modesto and other population centers.
John Stewart, a natural resources consultant to the California Association of 4-Wheel-Drive Clubs, said the 2009 plan has allowed the forest to provide access while protecting the land. If problems arise in certain places, he said, the forest can improve maintenance or even close a route.
Stewart said some people enjoy this kind of driving as a sport, while others use the routes to get to spots for camping, sightseeing and other activities "whatever the people want to access the forest for."
The plan designated 2,416 miles for off-highway vehicles, including stretches that started as logging roads or railroad grades. The total includes 137 miles of previously illegal routes, such as trails carved by dirt bikes decades ago.
Under the rules, drivers can park within one vehicle length of a road but cannot cut across timber stands, meadows or other parts of the forest landscape.
The plan spells out seasonal closures, mainly to keep dirt roads from eroding or compacting in wet weather. It also has rules for snowmobiles.
The environmental groups sued after the regional office of the Forest Serv-ice rejected their appeal of Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski's approval of the plan.
John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte center, said the agency rejected a compromise that would have added many routes while closing the most damaging ones.
"Most visitors come to the forest for quiet recreation," he said in a news release, "and are often offended by loud all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes roaring past in a cloud of dust or rushing around blind corners on narrow dirt roads."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.