Illegal off-road riding damaging the west

Mar 8, 2013

Ranchers and sportsmen in the west are big fans of the multiple-use mandate of public lands. But the growing popularity of recreational use—particularly of offroading—is spurring conflict.

Arizona cattlemen who have been grazing their cattle on the federal public and state trust lands have had frequent issues with off-road vehicle (ORV) riders. The issue is quickly complicated when ORV riders engage in illegal riding and other illegal activity which a growing number of people claim goes hand in hand with the activity.

Rolf Flake, long-time cattleman and cowboy poet from Gilbert, AZ, has managed a herd on the state trust land in the Sonora Desert for nearly two decades.

He has seen a lot of loss from property damage caused by ORV riders.

“Somebody stole my gates,” he told a local TV news station, and described numerous breaks or cuts in his fencing he attributes to the riders. Additionally, he’s reported damage to his stock tanks and other improvements. Damage to permanent improvements like this added to public land, and harassment of cattle, are common complaints.

“It’s a huge problem and it’s getting worse and worse,” said Flake.

Though specific prohibitions differ by state, there are some common regulations regarding ORV use.

Riders must stay on approved trails for ORVs and remain at documented speeds or otherwise appropriate speeds if no documentation exists. The use of ORVs while under the influence, with a loaded and/or uncased firearm, and on private property without the permission of the land owner is clearly illegal. Any harassment of wildlife or livestock is prohibited as is the tampering with private property.

Not only is physical damage to property a problem, but Flake explained how continued and improper use of main roads into and out of the state trust land by ORVs and the vehicles hauling them in have been a big negative impact. The compaction that goes on with the dirt roads by excessive use has created deep and long-lasting ruts in the roads that make them difficult to traverse even by ranch trucks.

This makes it hard to get trucks to his cattle for either feeding or gathering.

The damage done by illegal ORV use is nothing new, nor is it limited to Arizona. Problems with ORV riding and illegal activities have been occurring anywhere with public land. This has big negative impacts on the landscape of the west, and the people and wildlife who depend on it.

Multiple reports stemming from academic, official and media sources over the years have documented the extensive ecological damage that reckless ORV driving can cause. Among the greatest negative impacts to the land are erosion of topsoil and the compacting of lower soil levels and the attendant impacts on vegetation and wildlife.

According to a 2006 report published by the U.S. Geological Survey on the matter, 10 to 20 passes on the same area by an ORV caused the ground to become “cemented” or too heavily compacted to allow water penetration. If water and seed cannot penetrate the ground, nothing grows. Without plant life, the incidence of and susceptibility to erosion is greatly increased. The report suggests the effects of this sort of compaction can take decades or even centuries to correct.

The report also outlined a number of both direct and indirect effects on animals who find themselves near ORVs. Most indirect impacts can stem from the trickledown effect of the soil impaction and subsequent vegetation loss, such as loss of food sources and cover for prey species.

The direct impacts include very direct encounters such as being hit or pointedly harassed by the vehicles and noise issues. The volume produced by ORVs has been shown to deafen small wildlife and disrupt breeding cycles and migration routes.

For example, the report described how kangaroo rats—of which some types are endangered—lost their hearing for weeks after being exposed to 10 minutes of recorded dune buggy sounds at decibel levels lower than what they would likely experience in the wild.

The noise and worry caused by ORV use off of trails, or at impolite or illegal speeds in legal areas, can have negative effects on other wildlife as well. This in turn impacts another type of public land user: hunters.

The group Responsible Trails America—a group trying to educate ORV riders and help those hurt by illegal riding—has a growing collection of anecdotes of the damage of illegal riding. Many of the most disgruntled and frustrated come from hunters.

“It’s frustrating having a hunt ruined by people riding ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] where off-road vehicle use is prohibited,” said one frustrated hunter from Idaho.

She described how attempts to identify individual vehicles and violators are thwarted by the similarity of ORVs’ appearances.

Another hunter from Oregon described a hunt he went on with a buddy that was ruined by an ORV rider riding off the trail illegally. After calling a bull elk for some time, their quarry fell silent unexpectedly, and then an ORV rider showed up.

“We were disgusted to say the least. We walked the trail out and saw where someone had been clearing a trail off the main road a ways. Anyway, we stopped hunting shortly after that experience.”

Other anecdotes collected by Responsible Trails America come from self-described polite or lawful riders who are dismayed at the illegal activities of their fellows. More than one person told of seeing other riders with brush-cutting tools and finding illegal trails. But on the extensive western public lands, punishing illegal riders can be difficult.

“It’s hard to get law enforcement out here on a Saturday or Sunday, and that’s when the people [ORV riders] are here,” said Flake, disappointed with the enforcement in his area.

If you ranch on or otherwise frequent public lands and have encountered illegal ORV riders or damage to your property, alert your local law enforcement as well as the agency which oversees the public land where it occurred. If you have frequent issues, consider taking a camera with you to document the damage and/ or get images of perpetrators in action.

Due to intermittent ORV identification laws from state to state—37 states require some identification, while only 12 require “visible” license plates—identification with even photo documentation can be difficult.

But the more information you can offer law enforcement in trying to aid you in the problem, the better. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor