States rev up ORV rules

Western legislation aims to curb off-roading problems

  • Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune/

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Conservation advocates say fighting such bills is just putting off the inevitable, as public pressure mounts for increased controls. It makes sense for off-roaders to accept reasonable rules now, rather than have more onerous restrictions imposed later, says Gene Kolkman of the Nevada Responsible Trails Alliance. "There's no way the federal land managers can keep up with (increasing ORV use)," says Kolkman. "They might have to just close more trails." Harrison Schmitt of Responsible Trails America, which works to step up ORV regulation, is more blunt: "You'd think (riders) would be storming the Capitol steps to get as many tools to local law enforcement as possible instead of as few."

Many off-roaders agree. "The responsible recreational rider is typically in support of strong enforcement language, because they're interested in doing the right thing, and it's in our best interest that people who are doing bad things are caught and pay a penalty for that," says Russ Ehnes of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.

Off-roaders have tried to burnish their reputation and protect access by emphasizing responsible use. A group of national and state organizations representing equestrian, ORV and bicycle interests recently put together a new trail etiquette guide that includes such tips as "Respect all trail restrictions and use only trails open to your mode of transportation," and "Keep noise and dust down."

These state and volunteer efforts are helpful, but don't reduce the need for better management -- and enforcement -- at the federal level, says Schmitt. "The states have been much more proactive, but given the amount of federal land in the West, they can't do it alone," he says.

But the Forest Service and BLM can't enforce new rules without resources. A 2007 survey of Forest Service law enforcement officers found that the median patrol area for a single law enforcement officer was 444,000 acres, and that 86 percent believed there were too few enforcement officers for their patrol area. Yet the agency's enforcement budget has decreased in recent years, and with federal ledgers in the red, a meaningful boost in funding and resources seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains and other off-road playgrounds around the West, Jeeps, ATVs and dirt bikes continue to zip along trails both legal and illegal, with the environmental consequences -- soil erosion, fragmented habitat, trampled vegetation -- piling up year after year. After touring the Jemez District in April to survey damage to trails and streams from illegal ORV use, New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry sent a letter to Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Dan Jiron asking the agency to "prevent further degradation" of the area's streams. And Stillman, along with 68 other citizens and five conservation groups, filed a petition in late March seeking the closure of nearly 30 miles of what they believe are unauthorized routes on the Jemez.

Still, both off-roaders and conservationists remain hopeful that the new laws -- with enough enforcement -- can help states and the federal government manage ORVs more effectively. "It can all be fixed," Stillman says, surveying the multi-pronged trail snaking out into the woods from the edge of Forest Road 289. "It's just going to cost a fortune."

April Reese is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.