Reckless off-roaders called scourge

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Riders who stray from legal trails damage watersheds, help spread invasive species and contribute to fire hazards, a group says.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2007

A new group of retired land managers and forest rangers said Thursday that reckless off-road vehicle recreation was the No. 1 threat to public lands in the West.

The 13-member Rangers for Responsible Recreation said it was voicing the concerns of many federal land management employees in the West, including in California, who report that an increasing number of riders and the growing power of the vehicles are endangering natural resources and public safety.

Spokesmen for the group were participating in a teleconference from Tucson that was arranged by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. PEER, which describes itself as an “alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals,” helped found the new organization.

Damage from off-road vehicles is worst when riders leave designated routes and head into sensitive areas such as fragile desert and riparian zones, members of the new group said.

Jim Baca, who headed the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton, said the cumulative effect was serious for watersheds.

Matt Chew, former ecologist with Arizona State Parks, said, “Creeks are often the most drivable places, so they become highways.”

Fences and signs are often cut down, group members said.

Agencies have suffered sharp budget and staff cuts in recent years — especially in the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service — making it more difficult to police legal trails and close illegal ones, members said.

Illegal trails are blazed regularly, making it difficult for future riders to distinguish legal from illegal routes, they said.

In California, about 45,000 miles of roads and routes are open to off-road vehicles, according to Forest Service officials.

Tom Egan, a former wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service in California, said that improper off-roading “causes erosion; contaminates streams; spreads invasive plants; kills, harasses and stresses wildlife; and creates noise in certain environments that are not pleasing to certain individuals like landowners or other recreationists.”

Illegal activity is rampant in southeastern California, especially in fast-growing areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties where new neighborhoods consume open space.

Group members said they were not trying to prevent motorized recreation.

But Brian Hawthorne, public land policy director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, an off-road vehicle advocacy group, countered, “This seems like more of the same crisis-mongering from a group that is philosophically opposed to off-road recreation.”

Hawthorne said that the coalition had always been willing to stay in designating areas but that groups like PEER were trying to drive riders off all lands. He called for cooperation between the new group and off-roaders.

In 2003, then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said rogue off-roading was one of the four main threats to national forests, along with fire, invasive species and loss of open space.

According to Egan, the group considers off-roading the biggest threat because it contributes to the others: Tires tear up dirt, creating haven for invasive weeds; such plants often facilitate and fuel desert fires; and new developments near public lands bring more off-road vehicles to the area, whose riders often cut across private property or off-limits public lands to get to their designated routes.

Baca blamed lobbying organizations as pressuring the White House to ignore the damage caused by off-road vehicles. But others in the group said government agencies had simply failed to do their duty.

Regulating off-road users was a “tough, thankless job,” said Dan Heinz, a retired Forest Service ranger in Nevada. “It was one of the most controversial things a public land manager could do.”

He said that even before the Bush administration, superiors failed to provide support and instruction although more money and better enforcement tools were then available.

The Forest Service is preparing management plans for travel within national forests. Heinz said widespread public opposition to closing routes had made the process highly controversial.

Although the BLM is still short on funding, Heinz said, the Forest Service actually has “the authority and the budget” to close a lot of the roads.

But Egan said the agency was failing to do so. He blamed it on “the culture of the desert.” Leaving areas open is often the path of least resistance for the Forest Service and the BLM, he said.

Rangers for Responsible Recreation will lobby for tougher penalties for illegal riding, increased law enforcement and land-restoration funding, and a congressional study of the full environmental and taxpayer costs of reckless riding on public lands, members said.