ORV riding needs on-the-ground enforcement

  • Shannon Raborn


Not long ago, the Glamis off-road recreation area in Southern California was notorious for two things: It had become a place where ORV drivers could have a lot of fun and cause a lot of problems. Glamis, whose official name is the Imperial Dunes Recreation Area, came to define what happens when illegal activity on public land occurs with no one around to police it.

The problems faced by area rangers included loud and wild partying, public nudity and dangerous ORV riding. This behavior eventually spun into violence with a 2001 shooting death. The Bureau of Land Management immediately responded by beefing up enforcement patrols and increasing penalties for illegal activities. Now, the area also requires the primary vehicle to display a visible permit. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent visit to Glamis underscores the success that common-sense management practices can have for preserving responsible recreation opportunities.

But while the majority of ORV riders enjoy the sport responsibly, Glamis was not an isolated case. Western public lands are seriously threatened by the growing problem of reckless off-road vehicle riding. In 2010, nearly one out of three law enforcement actions taken on BLM land were for off-road vehicle incidents. This affects everyone who uses our nation's lands, from sportsmen, hikers and bikers to responsible riders of all-terrain vehicles. America is fortunate to have so much public land available for recreation, but these lands require good stewardship and management.

The tragic accident at the 2010 California 200 off-road race in John Valley that left eight dead highlighted what can happen when too few law enforcement officers patrol vast amounts of federal land. Amazingly, only one BLM law enforcement officer was on duty for that event, which drew nearly 2,000 people. All told, BLM officers must patrol 206.3 million acres of Bureau of Land management Land accessible for ORV riding, amounting to approximately one officer per 1 million acres.

In the face of budget shortfalls and a lack of law enforcement resources to weed out the bad apples, officials have resorted to closing many popular riding areas. In 2008, 2,340 acres were closed to ORV use in Nevada to prevent further damage to fossils caused by "unrestricted off-highway vehicle use within the area (that) is substantial and significant." In 2009, 1,600 acres were closed to ORV use in Colorado "to prevent the development of unauthorized user-created trails and damage to soils and vegetation, and to protect sensitive paleontological resources." A similar closure took place in Utah in 2005 "to protect soil, vegetation, wildlife, cultural, and riparian area resources that have been adversely impacted or are at risk of being adversely impacted by OHV use."

Illegal riding is increasingly leading to closures and threatening access for all outdoors users.  But closing trails doesn't have to be the solution. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee charged with overseeing federal lands is well represented by Western senators. Those senators should look to the lead of the 23 states that have passed ORV management laws in the past three years for solutions to this growing problem.

By taking three steps, the Obama administration could go a long way to addressing illegal ORV behavior on public lands: 1. Make it mandatory to show visible identification stickers on ORVs, 2. Enforce tougher minimum fines for violators, and 3. Create an increasing scale of penalties for repeat offenders.

A uniform, national visible ID standard will enable law enforcement to more effectively and safely identify violators. During Senate testimony in 2008, Frank Adams, executive director of the Nevada Sheriffs' and Chiefs' Association, noted, "Part of the problem that encourages this reckless behavior stems from the feeling of anonymity that many of the OHV riders have because there is no way of identifying them or their vehicles." He recommended requiring some type of identification system for ORVs on public lands.

Tougher minimum fines for violators will make reckless riders think twice before heading off designated trails, damaging public lands, taking short cuts through private property, disturbing wildlife and livestock or disrupting other outdoor users. And an increasing penalty scale for repeat offenders will establish real consequences for illegal riding. A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office survey of federal land managers found that current penalties don't deter reckless riding; the GAO recommended examining current penalty structures.

The success of Glamis, based on bigger riding penalties and mandatory identification of riders, can work elsewhere. As Secretary Salazar said during his visit, "This is the recreation I am talking about."

Shannon Raborn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Paonia, Colorado, and is the director of Responsible Trails America, based in Arlington, Virginia

Pamela Bond
Pamela Bond says:
Jun 23, 2011 04:43 PM
I think the stickers are a great idea but they need to be visible enough to be seen from a distance maybe the identification should be something larger like a license plate.
I was out wildlife watching in central Idaho meadow when a group of young, male dirt bike riders came screaming into the meadow. The then proceeded to shoot mud rooster-tails and spin cookies through the wettest part of the meadow. I was horrified...I was standing right there and they knew it. I started chasing after then, screaming and waving my arms, they just drove up to a nearby road and stopped. As soon as I got close, they just sped off. I had no way of identifying any of them other than by the color of their bikes and the clothes they were wearing. I was just beside myself because there was nothing I could do.
richard stivers
richard stivers says:
Jun 29, 2011 03:52 PM
The Pocatello Idaho BLM area on the west side has been totally destroyed by bikes and atv use and can't wait for other trails on the east side to open upen and destroy too. They have even dug routes around gates for access with the razor atvs.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby says:
Jun 30, 2011 12:26 PM
Law enforcement is expensive and ineffective in this regard, an inexcusable waste of public funds. It creates an angry community of OHV users that will not communicate or cooperate with the authorities. What is proven to work is education through community involvement, support for OHV associations, and a stewardship ethic developed by direct communication with the OHV community. It is critical that the real problem is addressed: The concentration of OHV activity into smaller and smaller areas by activism and policy does not solve the problem, it creates it. Dispersal of impact by creating a sustainable system of trails with superior riding experience is what is working in Colorado. California, with several times the amount of space, needs to look to programs that are successful in the Rocky Mountains and step away from the focus on militant enforcement and penalty. I sincerely doubt the statement of an area "totally destroyed" by OHV use in ANY area of the West - stating it without proof does not make it a fact.
Pam Bond
Pam Bond says:
Jul 01, 2011 04:00 PM
I agree with Mark that added law enforcement could be ineffective and that education is the key. In order to drive a vehicle, you must take a class and pass a test. I think there should be some sort of mandatory training for OHV users that not only teaches then to ride safely but also how to respect the lands they are exploring. In the example I posted before, these guys just had no respect for me or the area they tore up. They should have been taught that they can still have fun without disrepecting the land or the others who are using it. I know it is always a few bad eggs that ruins if for everyone...
Pam Bond
Pam Bond says:
Jul 01, 2011 04:01 PM
And as I said before, some kind of very visible identification on the OHVs would be great for citizen-policing.
George McCloskey
George McCloskey says:
Jul 01, 2011 09:40 PM
OHV use in restricted areas of Idaho continue to ruin the backcountry experience for hikers, hunters and anyone that wants to get out on foot and enjoy the outdoors. Those that violate the law already know that what they are doing is wrong. Education is important, but at some point there has to be better enforcement as well. A big penalty should be levied against those that have no respect for the rules that protect habitat.
Mark Newby
Mark Newby says:
Jul 02, 2011 09:19 AM
It is interesting what someone completely biased against Off-Highway Vehicles will resort to to make their point. The BLM is very proud of the controlled management of the Pocatello Riding area and devotes a web announcement to announce the opening of new facilities there: http://www.blm.gov/id/st/en/fo/pocatello.html. Large organizations exist to take care of it and make it a sustainable recreation opportunity: http://www.riderplanet-usa.com/[…]/ride_0462.htm . The Pocatello area was ravaged by mining and RESTORED for riding, try looking at a picture of the actual terrain: http://www.sharetrails.org/magazine/article/?id=707 .
It is irresponsible and non-productive to condemn OHV use in managed areas that have been rehabilitated precisely for the purpose of recreation.
JAY Jurkowitsch
JAY Jurkowitsch says:
Jul 05, 2011 01:39 PM
  It is NOT Just ATV's/Dirt Bikes and over sized Mud trucks causing damage... the snowmobiles continue the destruction thru the Winter and even more sensitive Spring, on the lands!! Large visible plates are a start, large fines as well, but in S.E. WY an effective tool has been Confiscate the vehicle and force restitution to pay for damaged lands!! It has been done, it should be done - It WORKS!!!
Jack Duggan
Jack Duggan says:
Jul 12, 2011 11:55 AM
As a landowner constantly dealing with ORV's taking a shortcut through my land, a visible plate would go a long way toward enforcing applicable laws against the miscreants. Those I do manage to catch deny they have identification on them, often have no idea where they are and seem to think all of the backcountry belongs to them. Visible stickers AND appropriate enforcement (i.e., prosecution) are necessary to stop the incursions. While I have seen successes with controlled riding areas, I do not buy the argument that "most" ORV riders are responsible. In my experience, most care only about the ride and are willfully ignorant of the law and common sense (i.e., respect).
Katherine McCoy
Katherine McCoy says:
Jul 12, 2011 02:30 PM
From a previous writer: "Dispersal of impact by creating a sustainable system of trails . . . is what is working in Colorado." Dispersal in Colorado is only working from the perspective of ORV riders. ORV numbers are exploding and it's difficult for horseback riders, mountain bikers and hikers to escape the dust, noise and danger of ORVs. Nonmotorized users are now avoiding many favorite BLM/USFS areas.
David Sundholm
David Sundholm says:
Jul 13, 2011 10:13 AM
Education is the key and I personally participate in it. I am the president of the Idaho Mountain Dirt Riders Association and we take these matters seriously. I started this club to educate, and work with the US Forest Service, BLM, and County officials to deal with these issues. Most of us, not just motorized are out there for the same reasons, and we all want these areas to remain beautiful. There are a few, usually younger that don’t understand the repercussions of their actions environmentally or in the community. All user groups have these people, but there seems to be an emotional rift between the people that call themselves environmentalist and the motorized community. We need to work together with the facts to solve these issues, that are the only way to overcome the rift and move forward. We don’t need to point fingers and become more divided, drawing lines in the dirt or snow to separate us even further.
richard stivers
richard stivers says:
Jul 14, 2011 09:54 AM
It is interesting to read Mark Newbys' article and how he seems to think I am biased towards OHV users. I have an atv and enjoy using it very much but wish other atv'ers would respect the land a little bit more. I agree there needs to be more enforcement and maybe give mandatory training to repeat offenders in the proper etiquette of trail riding.The organizations that that wrote should speak up as well when on the trails to people who abuse the system. We can't expect law enforcement to be everywhere as they are stretched to the limits as it is.
james holt
james holt says:
Aug 02, 2011 09:58 AM
I monitored roadless area trails for illegal ORV use in the Clearwater/Nez Perce National Forests in Idaho for a few summers. EVERY trail I walked down that was closed to ORVs and motorcycles, had their tracks on them. In sensitive wetland and soil habitats, was the most disheartening to witness. These forests are strewn with hundreds of miles of open trails for ORVs and motorcycles, yet they feel the urge to destroy more pristine wilderness as a modern-day, mechanized pioneer. Close areas to them, and nail em to the wall when they leave established trails and roads.