It’s hard to find anybody these days who’d even try to argue that off-road vehicles don’t damage public lands throughout the West.
Department of Agriculture concluded in 1999 that "with an increase
of off-highway vehicle traffic, i.e., motorcycles, four-wheel drive
vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, the Bureau of Land Management and
Forest Service have observed the spread of noxious weeds, user
conflicts, soil erosion, damage to cultural sites and disruption of
wildlife and wildlife habitat."
In response, Forest
Service Chief Dale Bosworth formed a national OHV Policy Team in
January 2004. One hope of the team is that designating trails will
eliminate a lot of the destructive cross-country travel, lessen
damage and reduce conflicts with hikers and other, quieter
Unfortunately, studies have already shown
that once a trail is designated on public land, more riders are
drawn to the area. This increases damage and also increases the
creation of side trails. In the Paiute Trail in Utah, for example,
an established OHV recreation area with 47,000 annual riders, even
OHV users express frustration at being unable to tell designated
trails from user-created trails.
The Idaho Department of
Parks and Recreation wants to attract tens of thousands of riders,
so it has proposed nearly 500 miles of designated routes in central
Idaho. These routes would link the communities of Challis, McKay
and Arco, and wind throughout the Pioneer Mountains, the Big Lost
River Valley, the Lost River Range and the Little Lost River
Valley. The area, approximately 3,500 square miles, is already
crisscrossed by 3,000 miles of roads and user-created trails.
Unmentioned in the Idaho agency’s proposal is that
within one mile of the trail there are at least 50 threatened,
endangered or state-sensitive wildlife and plant species. In
addition, many of the streams crossed by these trails are choked by
sediment. The state agency plans eventually to expand the trail
system south to Richfield, Idaho, northeast almost to Montana, and
north to Salmon, Idaho, resulting in thousands of square miles of
public lands dominated by a single use: off-road vehicles.
Does off-highway use conflict with other visitors to
public lands? The increased numbers, dust, noise and threat to
safety are not what most non-motorized users seek. Peace, solitude,
and the feeling you are alone with nature are all destroyed by the
intrusive whine of even distant OHVs.
founder of the BlueRibbon Coalition, which represents motorized
recreationists, has acknowledged that "noise is the single most
important issue that can affect our future on public land use.
It’s an extremely serious issue, and I know it’s a
difficult one for me to deal with."
While noise is
transitory, what wheels do to trails and their surroundings
persists. Funds are available to rebuild OHV trails, but not to
repair the damage that rugged vehicles do to streams, hillsides or
habitat for wild life. Even OHV riders dislike riding in damaged
areas or on washed-out trails, so they explore new areas, climb new
hills, ride through different streams and seek out different
meadows — abandoning their destroyed and unwanted playground.
Off-road drivers are responsible for the damage they do
while riding. The push, however, for public-land based multi-county
OHV-designated areas comes from politicians and businesses, which
have sniffed out yet another commodity to exploit on our publicly
If there is a solution, perhaps it is the
same one we’ve arrived at for heavily rafted rivers or
over-hunted lands: restricted use. Institute a permit system that
limits the number of users, and when and where they go. Strictly
enforce it. Place the burden of proof on the OHV users to post a
bond, just like any other consumptive use that ultimately requires
Meanwhile, those of us who value
our public lands because we like to stretch our legs, listen to
birds, hear the wind in the trees, fish in clean streams or
photograph unmarred landscapes, must make our values known to land
managers, politicians and certainly to motorized users.
To quote writer Edward Abbey, "Machines are domineering, exclusive,
destructive and costly; it is they and their operators who would
deny the enjoyment of the backcountry to the rest of us. About 98
percent of the land surface of the contiguous U.S.A. already
belongs to heavy metal and heavy equipment. Let us save the 2
percent — that saving remnant."