One significant step toward reining in those pesky all-terrain vehicles

  For years, environmental groups like the Bluewater Network have warned of the coming plague of Jetskis, snowmobiles and the many versions of all-terrain vehicles on our public lands. Now, the plague is upon us, and while the impacts of these machines have been documented in countless studies, more and more people are witnessing the damage first-hand to our air and water quality, wildlife, cultural resources, soils and wildlife.

Recognizing this damage from these so-called "outlaw trails," the Forest Service proposed a rule July 7 that would ban riding off designated trails, though no extra money has been set aside to enforce closures. The proposed rule, open for comment for 60 days, defines ORVs as dirt bikes and four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles, but exempts snowmobiles.

Meanwhile, the ORV industry and its supporters in the West have embraced economic analyses conducted by other federal agencies that always seem to support rampant use of these machines. Economic analyses are supposed to assist land managers in making sound decisions. But some bean counters at the federal government appear to have gone to the Arthur Andersen School of Accounting; analyses show a slant in favor of the ORV industry.

A case in point is the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent economic analysis of a BLM decision designating parts of California’s Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area as critical habitat for an endangered plant. This designation would likely close several thousand acres of the recreation area to ORVs. But instead of conducting an analysis of the costs and benefits of the closures, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused on economic impacts to off-road enthusiasts and related businesses.

Not surprisingly, the analysis concludes that ORV closures would cost the regional economy millions of dollars.

But the analysis did not include data such as the huge public-safety costs that come with ORVs. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 113,000 Americans are killed or injured on all-terrain vehicles each year. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons estimates that in 2000 alone, ATV injuries cost the public $6.5 billion.

These costs are well known yet they’re notably absent from the government’s analysis. The government also neglected to measure the impacts of off-road vehicles on other outdoor businesses. Wildlife artists, nature photographers, tour leaders, rafting companies, outdoor educators and guides all depend on protected environments for their businesses. Off-road vehicles damage these enterprises because they harm the very things these businesses rely upon to make their living — wildlife, scenery and tranquillity.

In another example, the National Park Service used questionable assumptions to pad the economic benefits of jetskis at western Colorado’s Curecanti National Recreation Area. In the fall of 2002, a court order closed Curecanti to jetskis. The court required the Park Service to conduct thorough environmental reviews, including looking at the impact of jetskis on the regional economy, before allowing the machines. The Park Service’s analysis recommended reopening the park to jetskis, in part because it claimed a ban would hurt businesses by decreasing park visitation.

Not so. A recent review of Park Service data at Curecanti found that visitation during the jetski closures increased by more than 30 percent from the previous summer.

Another glaring omission in many of these economic analyses is the consideration of long-term costs to public resources. Increased erosion, water and air pollution, harm to plants and wildlife and noise all resulting from ORV use come with costs that usually reach much further than the local economy. Because these are more difficult costs to quantify, agencies often simply ignore them.

Recently, more than three dozen wildlife artists and photographers wrote the Park Service urging regulation of off-road vehicles, because of the negative impact these machines were having on their businesses. Despite their protest, the economic cost to these businesses and the natural environment they depend on has yet to make it onto any of the agency’s balance sheets.

Until federal agencies provide a true analysis of the economic impacts of ORV use, studies will spur the growth of off-road driving on our publicly owned lands.

Still, the Forest Service this month began the process of restricting these vehicles to designated trails on all 155 national forests. It’s a late start, but at last one federal agency is trying to do the necessary thing. And step right up, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management; we’re all waiting.

Sean Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( A former ranger for the National Park Service, he is public lands director for the nonprofit Bluewater Network, based in San Francisco, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at