The energy industry isn’t the only one defacing the West’s wild spaces with fresh roads and trails, trampled wildlife habitat, and fouled air and water.

 

Unmanaged recreation, primarily the motorized sort, is one of the top threats facing the nation’s public lands, say federal officials. Other major problems, including the loss of open space and the spread of invasive weeds, are made worse by motorized vehicles.

 

But the problems can’t be all laid at the tires of the ATV crowd. Mountain bikers, rock climbers, and hikers also contribute to overuse, overcrowding and erosion. And under the Bush administration, the agencies charged with managing public lands, the Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, have been chronically underfunded and understaffed. They can’t afford to maintain visitor centers, keep campgrounds and toilets open, or hire enough rangers to enforce rules and educate people. Apart from the funding problems, the agencies have been hesitant to clamp down on recreation, especially off-road vehicle use, because it has become a major economic engine.

 

Recreation is also transforming Western communities. Cowboys and loggers downing Coors at the local watering hole are gradually being elbowed out by fleece-clad out-of-towners quaffing microbrews. Ski resorts, long a part of the Western landscape, have morphed from recreation centers into real-estate juggernauts, influencing the pattern of development for hundreds of miles around in places like Colorado’s Summit County and the Salt Lake City area.

 

New West recreationists increasingly come into conflict over the “highest and best use” of public lands. Affluent vacationers seeking packaged adventures rely on businesses offering guided raft and Jeep excursions. Meanwhile, other visitors look to the public lands for non-commercialized encounters with nature. But even those visitors have vastly varied notions of what they want – a quiet hike in search of birds, a sweat-soaked scramble up a peak, an adrenaline-charged ride on an ATV.

 

Accommodating all these forms of recreation is a quandary for federal land managers. Any land-management decision perceived as limiting access is guaranteed to draw fire from all sides. The federal agencies are now wrangling with the question of how to curb ATVs, which clearly cause more damage than other recreational users. The Forest Service is halfway through a four-year process to designate routes for off-roaders in every national forest. In Utah, the BLM is revising its management plans to limit riders to designated trails rather than continuing to allow unfettered cross-country use.

 

It remains to be seen whether the agencies will succeed in creating workable plans that provide reasonable access for off-roaders and other recreationists while also conserving land and wildlife. But giving them sufficient funding to do the job is the obvious first step in preserving the West’s recreation legacy.

 

Listed below are links to some of High Country News’ best recreation stories in recent years.