Skyrocketing use of off-highway vehicles has officials scrambling to protect public land from overuse

Jeff DeLong (JDELONG@RGJ.COM)
RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

From the forested Sierra to the rolling desert terrain east of Carson City, ragged tread scars criss-cross the hills, meadows are torn up by spinning tires and conflicts are increasing between those who enjoy motorized recreation and others who see it as a threat.

Nature is under wheeled assault, experts said.

"It shouldn't be like this," said Frank Machler, off-highway vehicle (OHV) coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's Carson Ranger District. "It's just invasive is what it is. It's destructive."

By and large, Machler said, the majority of OHV riders stick to roads where the environmental damage from their sport is minimal.

But some don't, and the resulting damage often is severe.

It's apparent at Reno's Peavine Peak, where years of unmanaged motorized recreation has resulted in a spiderweb of trails that widened with continued use, spilling eroded sediment down the mountain's flanks.

On federal land west of Reno, another steep trail dubbed "Camper Shell Hill" cuts vertically up a hillside, creating a "huge potential for erosion," Machler said. It's one of many similar tracks in the area.

Nearby, other four-wheeling "poachers" have torn up a sensitive meadow that provides critical habitat for the Sierra's wildlife -- deer, bears, birds and others.

The wheel ruts left behind have created an unnatural stream channel, draining the meadow of water and turning what should be a spongy grassy area into one that's cracked and dry. Thistles sprout out of the grass where vehicles deposited the weed's seeds.

Environmental damage

It's happening here. It's happening everywhere.
"Off-highway vehicles can cause really significant environmental damage," said Stan Vanvelsor, off-road coordinator for the Wilderness Society. Vanvelsor said the ever-more-popular machines are polluting streams, tearing up vegetation and distressing wildlife.

The problem is amplified in places like Nevada, where a skyrocketing population translates to a steadily growing number of motorized toys on the ground. It's a situation that is forcing a change in thinking over management of motorized recreation by federal land managers.

"It's to protect the health of the land. It's necessary," said Jerry Ingersoll, a top Reno-based U.S. Forest Service official who helped craft the country's new policy toward management of off-highway vehicles.

Environmentalists, by and large, support a new direction by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to restrict OHVs to existing roads and trails, a move designed to reduce both environmental damage and conflicts between those using public land.

Many OHV enthusiasts are also in general support of a policy they insist most already practice. But they also worry their favorite sport is in profound danger as more roads are closed to vehicles and officials bend to the political will of opponents.

By any account, the issue poses decidedly difficult challenges to those trying to strike a balance. Opinions vary greatly, and emotions run high.

"They create wastelands," said Tina Nappe, a Northern Nevada conservationist and Sierra Club member. Nappe said she has noticed a steadily increasing number of OHVs ripping around the back country of Northern Nevada and California as well as the mounting damage that results.

"They whip around trees, they love to go up steep hillsides. They don't really want to stay on trails," Nappe said. "We have treated our public lands as if they don't matter and we can do anything on them."

"We fully support staying on designated routes -- that's fine," said Phil Bender, co-founder of Reno's Hills Angels 4 X 4 Club. "The clubs are very, very willing to do this. These are good people, and they want to see their form of recreation continue."

But Bender worries about road and trail closures the government orders that might not be necessary -- including some recently proposed in the hills west of Reno. "We don't care for management by closure," Bender said. "I don't think the OHV community has been treated with fairness and honesty. I'd like to see more of that."

Sport's popularity skyrockets

Popularity of OHVs is rising as steeply as a biker's favored hill climb.

By Ingersoll's estimate, the number of OHV riders nationally has increased from about 5 million in 1970 to more than 50 million today. Ingersoll is deputy forest supervisor for Nevada's Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest and formerly the national OHV program manager for the Forest Service.

According to a 2005 report prepared by the Forest Service, the number of off-highway motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles rose from about 2.9 million in 1993 to about 8 million in 2003, an increase of 174 percent.

OHV sales more than tripled between 1995 and 2003 to more than 1.1 million, the report said.

By region, the West has the highest percentage of residents participating in OHV activities at more than 27 percent, the report found. In Nevada, the report found that more than 360,000 residents age 16 and older participated in OHV activities, or nearly 24 percent of that population.
Reno resident Ray Nelson, who has ridden his dirt bike on the slopes of Peavine Peak for more than 20 years, has observed many types of change.

These days, Nelson's just as apt to haul his motorcycle out to Yerington to ride. The reason -- booming growth has not only put more OHVs on the area's trails, it's also eaten up terrain available for riding.

"The more houses they put in, the less riding areas we have," said Nelson, 46.

Conflicts are also rising. In areas Nelson rides near Reno, he has encountered rocks on the trails and boards with nails hammered into them -- primitive booby traps that Nelson believes were laid by people who don't like dirt bikes and ATVs and are willing to put the people who ride them at risk.

"I'm done tolerating it here," Nelson said. "This land should be for everybody. I'm for everybody to ride here, (to)mountain bike, ride their ATV, walk or jog."

Others insist damage caused by OHVs has been growing for decades and must be addressed.

"It's destructive by its very nature," said Dan Heinz, a Reno-area resident who first noticed damage being caused by dirt bikes while working as a Forest Service ranger in Colorado four decades ago. Heinz now belongs to the group Retired Rangers for Responsibility, which is pushing for greater regulations on OHV activity, which he said is now largely unrestricted.

"With the first Japanese motorcycles in the 1960s it became apparent we had an emerging problem," said Heinz, 71.
Explosive growth of ATVs, which can travel across a wide amount of sensitive terrain, makes the issue ever more pressing, Heinz said.

"It's a problem that gets tougher every year. The longer you put it off, the worse it gets."

Management strategy changing

Conflicts and increasing damage to the land have put the issue at the forefront, nationally.

In 2005, then Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth described unmanaged recreation of off-highway vehicles as one of the four biggest threats to national forest land, along with wildfire, loss of open space and invasive species. That was when Bosworth proposed a policy that would restrict all OHVs to designated roads and trails across nearly 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

"It's a whole change in philosophy. The old philosophy used to be 'open unless posted closed,'" said Ingersoll, who was in charge of drafting the new policy when based in Washington before moving to Northern Nevada.

Roads and trails are being mapped and plans prepared for individual units of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which at 6.3 million acres is the largest in the lower 48 states. Travel plans for popular OHV areas near Reno -- including Peavine Peak and the Martis area -- are already finished.
The Peavine plan, released in 2003, closed about 75 miles of existing roads and trails but kept open more than 100 miles, which will be periodically maintained for continued use by OHVs. The Martis plan, released this summer, proposed closure of about 25 miles of existing roads while leaving 31 miles open for motorized use.

Nationally, the goal is to have the process completed by the end of 2009.

Rapidly growing popularity of OHVs -- particularly in the West -- has forced the change, Ingersoll said. The most significant problems caused by the machines are associated with new roads and trails being created by off-trail riders. Those, Ingersoll said, result in erosion, sedimentation and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

"It's the route proliferation issue that was probably the greatest," Ingersoll said. "The first time a vehicle drives across a meadow, it might not do any harm. It's the second and the third and the fourth and the 78th -- if that route is repeated enough, it becomes established."
Mounting damage to public land from OHV use makes aggressive change unavoidable, Ingersoll said.

Growing population a factor

Stricter regulation of OHV activity is particularly vital near such places as Reno and Carson City, where a steadily growing number of new residents riding the machines has resulted in a concentrated area of resource damage.
"We're dealing with a population here of a half million, and everybody enjoys their public land," Ingersoll said.

"Certainly, in places like the Sierra front where the population is increasing, and we're dealing with an urban backyard ... it's the sort of 'loving it to death' effect."
While the BLM does not have the same timeline to alter policy as the Forest Service, it is also changing travel management strategies with an eye toward restricting OHV use to designated roads and trails.

Of the 48 million acres managed by the BLM in Nevada, 38 million have historically been designated as open with no real restrictions where motorized vehicles can travel, said Leo Drumm, trails and travel management coordinator for BLM Nevada.

"You're basically free to go wherever you want to," Drumm said. "We're really taking a hard look at whether that's realistic."

Coming changes, both Drumm and Ingersoll said, will likely require a major public relations push by the government and an effort by folks to significantly change their behavior.
"That's the mindset people have had, that it's OK to do whatever you want to. Our challenge over the next decade is going to be to change that," Drumm said.

There's really little choice, he said.

"As these numbers grow, there will be more management," Drumm said. "We have more traffic lights in Reno because there's more traffic, and this is basically the same thing."
Decisions must not involve the government alone but active participation of everyone with a stake in the issue, from environmentalists to OHV enthusiasts, Ingersoll said.
"You can look at this as threat and a challenge, which it is. You can also look at it as an opportunity to work together."