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for people who care about the West

Off-road vehicles are chewing up our public lands

  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.

The U.S. 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 recreationists.

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.

Clark Collins, 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 owned lands.

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 extensive restoration.

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."

Tonia Wolf writes in Boise, Idaho, where she is a board member of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society.