North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

Off-Road Vehicles

Off road vehicle damage

A Forest Service Chief’s Prophetic Words

Conservationists remember with considerable fondness the tenure of Mike Dombeck as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Among other things, Dombeck presided over the development of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001, a policy that aimed to maintain intact the remaining 60 or so million road-less acres on our national forests.

In a series of speeches delivered after he left his agency post, Dombeck outlined what he termed the top 10 threats to the national forest system. “I believe off-road vehicle or all-terrain vehicle use will be the public land issue of the decade,” said the former Forest Service Chief. “We have more people going more places on public land more often, with more kinds of all-terrain vehicles than ever before. Many people want to go anywhere anytime with anything regardless of the impact on the land, water, vegetation or wildlife.”

Dombeck predicted that bringing “support, order and agreement” to the use of such all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and off-road vehicles (ORVs) on public land will be tough enough to make the “spotted owl issue look easy.”

Reading Dombeck’s comments, it is difficult not to conclude that ATV-related problems will be coming soon to a national forest near you, if they aren’t already there…and they probably are.

Numbers of off-road-vehicle (ORV) users in the U.S. have multiplied, rising to 36 million in 2000 compared to 5 million 30 years earlier. Some sources put the number of ATVs in use in the U.S. at as high as 7 million. Soaring gasoline prices seem to have made little difference in sales numbers.

ATV model names – -“Brute Force” and “Outlaw” — seem chosen to encourage bad behavior and the television ads for them reinforce the idea. Some ATV riders seem intent on riding the machines as they see them advertised on television: “without limit.” Here, as elsewhere on America’s public lands, ATV operators routinely remove or ignore barriers meant to prevent their entrance to areas declared off-limits.

Some organized off-road vehicle groups take their sport and their responsibility seriously, working to educate riders and to maintain and repair trails. They argue that a small percentage of“bad apples” is the source of most of the abuse and that may be true. But as another former Forest Service Chief notes,“the cumulative impact is tremendous” if even a percent or two of ATVers go off the trail.” In any case, so many have done just that that there are an estimated 14,000 miles of so-called “usercreated” trails on our national forests.

Predictably, conflicts between human-powered recreationists and ORVs have soared. A family walking in the quiet woods disrupts no one else’s outdoor experience; a churning ORV is another matter. That loss of a quiet recreational experience is important. But the greater concern is the environmental damage from unmanaged motorized recreation. The machines are bigger, more reliable, more powerful. Damage from them has increased in proportion to numbers. The costs include ruined wetlands, beaten-down stream banks, gashed meadows, disrupted wildlife habits and habitat.

In addition to the site-specific damage from ORV use, there are questions, too, about ORVs’ immediate impacts on human health. An American Lung Association report from 1999 found that the Southeast produces more volatile organic compounds or VOC than any region of the country. (These compounds react with heat and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, smog’s primary component.) Across the region, pollution from off-highway vehicles accounts for 14 percent of VOC emissions, third behind highway vehicles (32 percent) and industrial solvent use (24 percent).

The region also led in the nation in production of particle pollution and the contribution of off-highway vehicles topped that of highway vehicles, 6 percent compared to 5.

The Wilderness Society notes that,“Dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles are major sources of air, water and noise pollution nationwide. Most already in use are powered by two-stroke engines that are antiquated, highly polluting and inefficient. Off-road vehicles are a major source of pollution on America’s national parks, monuments, forests and other public lands”

None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for responsible motorized use on our national forests. But that place isn’t everywhere. Each must be carefully chosen, then managed just as carefully. As Chief Dombeck said in his warning about the challenge of ORV management,“…all our activities must take place within the ecological limits of the land.”

There is some evidence, in addition to the recent actions on the Tellico riding area, that the Forest Service is beginning to heed the warning of its former chief. In 2007, the agency announced that it would begin imposing limits on ATVs and other off-road vehicles across the forest system’s 193 million acres.

In effect, that action should mean, pursuant to a rule the agency imposed in 2005, that national forest trails will be closed to ATVs unless specifically posted open, a rule that is in effect on some forests already. And it should mean an end to the “open unless posted closed,” go-almost-anywhere non-rule that has been in effect. Trail maps, expected to be available for all national forests by 2010, will document the changes.

While the new attention to ATV and ORV abuse is welcome, it faces two obvious limits. The first has to do with how the agency chooses the trails it will leave open to motors. Simply changing signs from “closed” to “open” will mean little. Each trail or trail segment proposed for motorized use must be analyzed to ensure that motorized use is appropriate in that place and that it can occur without damage to soil, water, wildlife, and other recreational activities. Perhaps more significant is whether and how the agency plans to enforce closures. While it may be finding the will to wrestle with the problem, it lacks the resources–people and money–to manage rules now in effect.

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