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
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 email@example.com.