Inyo County officials have approved a measure that would allow off-road vehicles on paved roads, but two national conservation groups are suing to block the plan.
The so-called "Inyo County Adventure Trails System" could eventually open up 242 miles of public roads to dirt-bikes and other non-street-legal vehicles used for off-road recreation, though the pilot program approved by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors in January would allow off-roaders on just a handful of county roads.
The intent, backers say, is to connect off-road recreation areas with amenities such as food and lodging. But conservationists worry that the plan could threaten public safety and increase off-road incursion into little-traveled areas, and are suing the county to block the plan.
The pilot program would open up five routes near Bishop, and one each near Aberdeen, Independence, and Lone Pine.
"This so-called 'Adventure Trails System' project is a disaster in the making. It's opening the floodgates to illegal ORV activities that hurt wildlife, foul the air, generate noise pollution and harm people's safety," said Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
CBD and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed suit to block the Adventure Trails System plan Friday in California Superior Court in Inyo County.
According to the groups, the Adventure Trails System would encourage off-roaders to bring their machines to little-used, fragile parts of the Inyo County landscape in Owens Valley, the eastern Sierra Nevada, and Death Valley National Park. Some of the trails in the larger plan would lead one-way up to Death Valley NP, which does not allow off-road vehicles.
The groups also charge that Adventure Trails System signage directing off-roaders onto routes in the plan were put up before the plan's legally mandated environmental review was complete.
One of the main concerns about the Adventure Trails System involves the safety of off-road vehicles on paved roads. Many off-road vehicles don't have differentials, a gearbox on the rear axle that allows the rear wheels to turn at different rates. Differentials increase weight and reduce a vehicle's clearance, but they're essential for making safe turns on pavement. Without a differential to allow the rear wheel on the outside of a turn to rotate faster than the inside wheel, one of the two tires will actually skid during every turn. That means reduced operator control and potential rollovers.
In addition, few off-road vehicles include the kind of basic safety features -- restraints, crumple zones, and so forth -- required in street legal vehicles. Most off-road vehicle manufacturers and trade groups strongly discourage riding on paved roads as a result.
The state of California is on record as saying Inyo County bears full financial responsibility for damages incurred or caused by off-roaders using its county roads, but the county intends to address the liability issue through an unspecified "liability pool," say the groups filing suit.
"A small group of off-roaders has convinced Inyo County supervisors to force this project on unwilling residents, who not only bear the social and environmental impacts, but are also the ones who will foot the bill for inevitable injuries," said Karen Schambach with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.