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.

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

For their part, ORV riders say they just want to have fun. Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a powerful lobbying group for ORV interests, decries any government effort to tightly restrict access for motorized recreationists on public lands. He says some riders have been abusive, but he contends that it is no reason to ban everyone else.

With 500,000 members and a handful of American and Japanese ORV manufacturers contributing to the cause, the coalition earlier this year was instrumental in persuading Congress to fund the $270 million Recreation Trails Program. Under the program, some hiking and horseback-riding trails will be converted to accommodate wide-bodied ORVs.

Considering that the US government intends to dismantle some of the Forest Service's estimated 370,000 miles of roads in coming decades, the measure was seen as crucial for ORV owners. But former Montana Congressman Pat Williams asks: "Do we want Yamaha and Kawasaki to be setting the policy of how we manage recreation on our public lands?"

Critics say ORV riders represent a small fraction of outdoor recreationists, yet they get access to a disproportionately high percentage of public lands. For example, in Utah, 94 percent of the 23.5 million acres of BLM land is open to ORV use, says the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"Most public agencies disregard the ecological impacts of roads, and attempt to justify timber roads as benefiting recreation and wildlife management," notes prominent conservation biologist Reed Noss in a recent ecological analysis. "Even when a land manager recognizes the desirability of closing roads, he or she usually contends that such closures would be unacceptable to the public."

Indeed, the idea of closing roads has occasionally met with deep opposition. ORV riders continued to defiantly drive on old logging roads in Idaho's Targhee National Forest after a judge had ordered managers to close the roads to protect grizzly bears. The Forest Service dug "tank traps" to thwart further incursions. Later, an explosive device was left on the doorstep at a Forest Service building, apparently to protest the road closures.

Jim Gerber, a retired Forest Service timber sale planner who spent a quarter century with the agency, does not condone violence, but he understands the frustration. "What has the world come to when we have to build tank traps to keep Americans out of public lands they own?" he asks.

Forest Service's key decision

Others have a different view. When the Forest Service in 1990 eliminated the so-called 40-inch rule - which gave a green light to increased use of ORVs that are more than 40 inches wide - Montanan Frank Culver cried foul.

Despite claims by the Forest Service that it widely advertised its intention to cancel the rule, just five comments nationwide were submitted to the federal record.

"Nobody knew about it, and if the conservation community had, you know there would have been a major uproar," Mr. Culver says. "Abolishing the 40-inch rule was arguably one of the most significant natural-resource decisions the Forest Service has made.... [It] opened the door for much of the mess the agency finds itself in."

For residents of Jamestown, government promises to address the "four-wheeled menace" provide little solace. Forest Service district ranger Christine Walsh says she is sympathetic to their concerns but she is confronting the same local resistance experienced across the West.

"We're tying to seriously determine what the capacity for ORVs is that the land can handle and then prescribe appropriate limits," she says. "Nobody likes to have limits placed on themselves."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.