Crush of off-road vehicles plies West's public lands
The use of recreational vehicles, from snowmobiles to four-wheelers, is
In the tradition of John Wayne, cattle drives to Abilene, Texas, and rugged individualism comes an invention fast becoming a symbol of the changing New West: off-road vehicles.Skip to next paragraph
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Packing more horsepower than a trusty steed, cheaper and more versatile than a pickup, off-road vehicles (ORVs) like four-wheelers and dirt bikes are being saddled by middle-class consumers in record numbers. They're considered essential tools for hunting - even mainstays for modern cowboys.
Yet for Mark Williams and his neighbors in quaint Jamestown, Colo. (pop. 290), ORVs are noisy, smelly annoyances rumbling through town on the way to the Roosevelt National Forest. More than that, they're sullying the town's water supply by muddying James Creek, according to one independent study.
"I hate to beat on the Forest Service," says Mr. Williams, water-quality coordinator for the Boulder County Health Department. "But my goodness, they have a handbook on good watershed practices yet their own standards are being blatantly violated by ORVs and their approach to management seems to be no management at all."
In fact, this bedroom community of Boulder, Colo., is among dozens of communities in the public-land-rich West trying to cope with skyrocketing numbers of ORV riders, which land managers confess have caught them completely off guard.
The problem is epidemic, critics say, and the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are dragging their feet, in part because they often receive millions of dollars from gasoline taxes earmarked for ORV trails - a charge the agencies deny. Off-road enthusiasts defend ORVs as a way for the elderly, physically challenged, and families with kids to enjoy public lands off-limits to the average motorist.
Now, with ORV visitor days estimated to reach 118 million a year by 2020 - up from 5.3 million in 1979 - the Forest Service is being forced to rethink how its holdings will be managed in years ahead.
"The Forest Service and BLM have never stepped back and looked carefully at the increasing range and capabilities of off-road vehicles," says John Adams with the Montana Wilderness Association. "Without review, planning, or even acknowledgment, ORVs are transforming recreation in our Western public lands."
The loss of quiet trails
Mr. Adams points to a litany of concerns: the effect of ORVs on sensitive plants, animals, and landscapes - including places where ORVs have hastened the listings of endangered species. Hikers and horseback riders rue the loss of quiet trails. And activists worry about the quality of the water their families drink.
Forest Service officials acknowledge they're playing catch-up, but so is everyone else. "I wouldn't say the Forest Service or any other federal agency is behind the curve on this issue as much as society as a whole is behind the curve in being able to deal with the collective emergence of three- and four-wheelers, snowmobiles, and jet skis," says Chris Wood, a senior Forest Service policy adviser in Washington.
All 155 national forests are drafting "travel plans" that spell out where machines are allowed to travel on and off roads. The BLM has yet to formulate a national strategy.
Even now, say some officials, ORVs cause less damage than dune buggies and jeeps caused 20 years ago, when there were few limits. "It all depends on how you look at it," says Tom Thompson, assistant forester for the Rocky Mountain region.
Wary of too much regulation