All-Terrain Destruction

Almost Everyone Agrees, ATVs Need To Be Controlled–But How?

Few issues are raising more hackles in the nation’s backcountry than the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The unexpected proliferation of these motorized, single-rider four-wheelers, on the market since 1983, has crept up on the blind-side of land and wildlife managers in little more than 15 years.

ATVs are included under the broader heading of off-road vehicles (ORVs) or off-highway vehicles (OHVs). According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, the number of Americans driving ORVs increased from 19.4 million in 1983 to 27.9 million in 1995. The whopping 43.8 percent increase is largely due to ATVs, and has sent federal, state and private agencies scrambling to address their impacts on land, on wildlife and other resource users.

Off-road vehicles have been used in the nation’s forests and fields for decades. But, says Shawn Regnerus, who monitors ORV use for the Predator Conservation Alliance, “ATVs are completely different animals than motorcycles and traditional four-wheel drives. Motorcycles take skill to ride, and they can’t carry much gear. Traditional 4x4s are now pretty much restricted to roads. But ATVs are easy to ride, carry plenty of gear and travel off roads and trails. An ATVer can go just about anywhere, if he or she is outfitted with a winch and a chainsaw.”

It’s that go-anywhere feature that’s causing big problems. A report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality titled Off-Road Vehicles on Public Lands says ORVs (including ATVs) have damaged every kind of ecosystem found in the United States.

Jonathan Kempff, forest trail coordinator for the Gallatin National Forest in Montana, sees first-hand what ATVs are doing. “They go through and all of a sudden a single track trail is converted to a double-track trail. It’s a problem all over the West, not only on Forest Service (FS) land but also on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grassland. Man, it’s terrible on open hills because it’s pretty much free rein everywhere.”

The damage done by ATV use in the backcountry goes beyond an explosion of user-created trails that is killing vegetation and causing soil erosion, says Gayle Joslin, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Summer is the most critical time for wildlife to regain nutritional status and prepare for winter,” says Joslin. “Now, we have these [ATV] disturbances in areas where wildlife normally had peace and quiet and opportunity to feed without being harassed. We also have habitat fragmentation, damage to riparian areas and the spread of weeds, and that impacts the wildlife forage base.”

The ATV users primarily responsible for these problems are hunters, say Clark Collin, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, and Russ Enis, executive director of the Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, both organizations representing motorized recreation. But Joslin disagrees, saying that most hunters are not happy with ATVs in the backcountry.

Dick Owenby, a recreational specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, has a broader view of the types of riders causing the problems: “With two or three hours practice, my 75-year-old mother could drive to places she couldn’t drive with any other vehicle. We have created a new group of people out there using a vehicle they’re not familiar with. I don’t think they have a good understanding of the impacts they’re having.”

If ignorance is part of the ATV problem, education could be part of the solution. But educational information on land use ethics hasn’t been getting to ATVers, says Collin, because they have had little involvement with OHV groups that advocate responsible off-highway driving: “We certainly promote the concept that, in most areas, OHVs should stay on existing routes and shouldn’t be heading off cross-country.”

To get that message across, Enis says the OHV Conservation Council is working with a number of other groups around the nation to have a comprehensive educational program on ATV ethics and responsibilities ready for distribution this summer.

Other people close to the ATV issue feel that a lack of decisive land management guidelines is at the heart of the problem. “The FS and BLM have done a poor job of designating, mapping and publicizing what trails are open and closed to ATV use,” says Don Amador, western regional representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition.

Kempff agrees that the land management agencies need to be more proactive in dealing with ATVs: “If the ATV user is driving in a contentious fashion on a system that is open to that use, I can’t fault the user if there is resource damage. To me, that’s an administrative problem for the Forest Service or BLM. If something like that is unacceptable to us, then we should do something about it.”

In one widespread attempt to tame the four-wheeled ruckus, the FS and BLM, in October 1999, jointly proposed limiting the use of ATVs and other ORVs to existing roads and trails on 16 million acres of public land in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. But a number of environmental groups say the proposed plan does not go far enough, since it would allow travel on thousands of miles of trails that ATVers have created themselves by repeated use. These “illegal” trails were not sanctioned by the FS or BLM and they are not included in their management plans. They should be closed down, says Bill Meadows of The Wilderness Society.

Dick Kramer, FS co-leader on the Montana/Dakotas proposal, says, “It’s a stopgap measure to prevent things from getting worse until we have time to do site-specific travel planning on the local level.”

But that may take years, Regnerus points out, and every year more unauthorized trails are being imprinted on the backcountry by ATVs. “Enforcement is a really big problem,” he says. “You can have all the laws you want on the books, but without really active enforcement, it’s useless.”

In late 1999, the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, The Wilderness Society, American Lands Alliance and more than 90 partner groups announced their intention to file a petition challenging the Forest Service to develop a comprehensive and uniform approach to ORV management on national forest lands. The petition triggers a formal process that requires a response by the Forest Service.