Legislation opens door for motorized use at Clear Creek

The mountains lead into the Clear Creek area where many people used to use off-road vehicles before the property was closed in 2008.

While they have fought against a federal agency for years, advocates pushing for Clear Creek Management Area’s reopening might get a chance to sidestep their foe at the Bureau of Land Management through newly introduced legislation. And while the door is now cracked open for long-dormant motorized vehicle use – supporters hope sometime in 2013 – the bill also appears to target an expansion to Clear Creek’s current boundaries comprising 63,000 acres.

Legislation introduced last week from Congressman Sam Farr, D-Carmel, could spur reopening for 243 miles designated for off-road motorized vehicles in the Clear Creek Management Area. The once popular recreation area in southern San Benito County and western Fresno County has been shuttered to the general public since May 2008 when the Bureau of Land Management commenced a temporary closure due to Environmental Protection Agency studies making the case for dangerous levels of cancer-causing asbestos, largely in 31,000 acres referred to as the serpentine area.

That closure sparked outcry and an organized opposition from riders and other outdoor enthusiasts who contended the presence of chrysotile asbestos was at safe levels, arguing it has not caused any sickness from riding the area, and that users can take on the responsibility of avoiding clusters of dust containing asbestos. Along the way, they gained support from such government entities as the county board and California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission.

“There are dangerous conditions of all sorts on public land, whether it’s drowning in the river up at the Auburn Recreation Area or falling off a cliff climbing at Yosemite,” said Don Amador, western representative for the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national trail-based recreation group fighting for Clear Creek’s reopening. “So that’s what kind of got a lot of people scratching their head.”

Now the local congressman is taking his own head scratching to the House for intervention. The bill largely addresses a change of designation to rename it as the Clear Creek National Recreation Area. New rules would stipulate that the BLM reopen the property to motorized use on 243 miles of existing routes – as outlined in the 2005 Clear Creek Management Area Travel Management Plan – which are already approved under a federal environmental process.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he had not read the legislation yet and could not comment on specifics. As for Clear Creek, he reiterated his support for reopening the tourist spot, which had attracted about 35,000 users annually before its closure.

“In general, I’m in support of it,” Muenzer said.

The bill, though, also calls for the new recreation area to include 75,000 acres – about 12,000 more than Clear Creek Management Area – and notes that the agency can acquire land from adjacent property owners. Although Farr could not be reached immediately for comment, his track record is one that encourages expansion of federally managed lands, particularly within Pinnacles National Monument.

According to Farr’s legislation: “The Secretary may acquire land adjacent to the National Recreation Area by purchase from willing sellers, donation, or exchange.”

Another provision in the bill includes development of a comprehensive management plan within two years of its passage.

Amador emphasized that the legislation would help ease the congestion at Hollister Hills Recreation Area – he pointed out the state park often has to turn away riders because it is so packed at times – while enticing others to come back to San Benito County’s off-road scene.

“I think it would bring back a substantial amount of OHV recreation to almost pre-closure levels,” he said.

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