Since the early pioneers first hitched up their wagons and cried, “Westward Ho!” denizens of the American West have been leaving their mark – literally – on the region’s landscapes.
Years of exploration and settlement, initiated with the horse, followed by the iron horse, then the horseless carriage, have taken their toll on western wildlands. Today’s westerners pose a new generation of challenges for wildland managers, says Utah State University researcher Fee Busby, with their unbridled enthusiasm for a horse of a different color: the off-highway vehicle.
A 2005 study led by the U.S. Forest Service estimates that Americans own more than 8 million motorized off-highway vehicles. “Utah is one of the highest states in terms of residents out riding these vehicles,” says Busby, a professor in the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Wildland Resources. “And most of the riders are from urban areas.”
Such vehicles, also known as OHVs, encompass a wide variety of models and uses, ranging from off-road motorcycles or “dirt bikes” to four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles such as Jeeps and trucks. In general, OHVs are designed for recreational, work or rescue use on rough terrain and many models are not legal to operate on public highways, streets or roads.
On government and industry surveys OHV users cite “social affiliation” as the prime motivation for recreational off-road vehicle use. “People like to be outdoors with family and friends and OHV use is seen as an enjoyable group activity,” Busby says. “‘Personal challenge’ and ‘adventure’ are also frequently listed as motivations for OHV use.”
Manufacturers don’t disappoint in providing features consumers crave, he says.
“New ATVs feature powerful V8 engines, improved suspension and tires with deep lug patterns for extra traction on loose terrain,” Busby says. “That tells you something about where a person who buys this vehicle is planning to go.”
Roaring through the back country on a sweet ride might be fun, but OHVs are like a bull in a china shop on fragile landscapes, he says. While virtually all human activity alters the environment, the impact of OHV use is particularly destructive, rapid and lasting.
“OHVs cause damage quickly with greater intensity than other land uses, such as hiking, horseback, mountain biking or grazing,” Busby says. “This is because of the combination of weight, power and daily travel distance of OHVs.”
Vegetation most vulnerable to OHV damage includes lichens and mosses, followed by succulents, then shrubs. “Also, OHVs may move invasive plants from one location to another,” he says.
Damage to vegetation can lead to water and wind erosion, Busby says, along with changes in plant composition. “Introduction of invasive species – particularly plants such as cheatgrass – may heighten wildfire danger.”
Ramifications are quickly apparent with compacted soil, restricted water infiltration and fragmented wildlife habitat.
“So the agencies managing recreational areas and wildlands find themselves in a real conundrum,” Busby says. “How do you restrict use in popular areas? What is gained by closing or limiting use where damage is already done? Does closing an area result in OHV users moving to a new, undisturbed area?”
He finds similarities between livestock grazing issues faced by society in the late 1800s and early 1900s – when unregulated grazing damaged western wildlands – and the challenges faced by today’s land managers.
“The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management – agencies created to improve grazing management and other public land uses – worked hard to gain control of millions of head of sheep and cattle owned by just a few thousand ranchers,” Busby says.
He wonders how the agencies can ever manage millions of OHV users.
Self-enforcement of rules, use of designated trails and adherence to ‘tread lightly’ pledges may be the answer, Busby says. “There will never be enough enforcement officials to monitor usage and track violators.”
It’s up to riders to police themselves, he says, and to educate new enthusiasts about responsible OHV use.
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto [firstname.lastname@example.org], 435-797-1429