Off-road motor vehicle enthusiasts are cheering an Interior Department rule that might make it easier to drive vehicles on forgotten paths and roads on federal land. Wilderness advocates are worried. From member station KNPR in Las Vegas, Ky Plaskon reports.
CURWOOD: The number of four-wheel all-terrain vehicles in the back country is skyrocketing, and riders are forming a new and powerful recreational lobby. ATV enthusiasts are cheering a recent Bush administration rule that makes it easier for local governments to claim control of trails and old roads on federal lands. Wilderness advocates are worried the change will mean widening and even paving trails in national parks and forests.
From member station KNPR in Las Vegas, Ky Plaskon repots.
PLASKON: The Valley of Fire has always been a popular place. The black petroglyphs Indians drew here 2,000 years ago still adorn the valley’s blood-red walls. The Indians are gone now but locals have loved riding their ATVs here for a long time. Recently, that was made legal.
PLASKON: Stony Ward, owner of ATV Adventures, is getting ready to guide customers around a cluster of desert trails here, about 60 miles north of Las Vegas. He advertises that you can see the petroglyphs while riding at great speeds over pink coral sand dunes, through dry river beds, and past red sandstone canyon walls.
WARD: We change people’s lives. We have a lot of people that’s been behind a desk, or from New York, that’s never even been in the desert. And they get out here and 90 percent of the people have never ridden before. And they get out here and they turn into like, oh, I can’t believe the peace, the quietness, the thrill of riding the ATV. It’s just--we’ve actually changed a lot of people’s lives. They actually go a different direction when they get back and say, you know what? I’m going to go out and do outdoor activities a lot more.
PLASKON: Ward says a lot of people go home after his tour and buy ATVs, the squat four-wheel vehicles with bulbous knobby tires and bike handlebars. They cost $2-7,000 dollars. The sport gained popularity in the late 1980s but by 2001 sales hit a million. That’s selling 3,000 ATVs and motorcycles each day. People are driving these motorized vehicles on paths in national forests, in parks, across deserts, and federal range lands. Millions of acres are now criss-crossed with tire tracks.
The users also ride on vacant lots in cities, creating dust problems. In the wilderness, they make a lot of noise, destroy vegetation, threaten animals, and leave a lot of trash. Over the last year, ATV owners discarded more than 15 tons of trash across one of the most popular off-road areas in the nation, the Glamis Dunes in southeastern California, though some riders recently organized a huge cleanup. Industry supporters say the important thing is that ATVs are encouraging more people to use public lands.
PLASKON: At the Valley of Fire, volunteer Tom Dickinson runs a generator and drives screws into a sun shelter, the kind of amenity people appreciate in the shadeless desert. They’ve already built public restrooms. Nearby, someone dumped some old couches after a party. One of the biggest criticisms is that bikers and ATV riders don’t stay on roads or even paths, but cut through wild country, destroying fragile soil. Dickinson concedes that’s true.
DICKINSON: You will have one person that’ll go off, and then another person will go behind him and see trails--a trail going off, thinking, that it’s a trail. And that’s how these other trails get started. That’s tough to say, you know, stay on the highway and drive in your lane, don’t go off road. That’s a tough one, you know.
PLASKON: Valley of Fire off-roaders like Dickinson and Ward agree that before more ATV roads are added there should be more signs and people should be taught about the damage caused by cutting new paths. But 11-year-old Alex Hicks, who started riding when he was six, says no one has ever told him to stay on the trail.
PLASKON TO HICKS: Do you ever go off the trail?
HICKS: Just to see what else there is out there, to ride around with.
PLASKON: Is that okay, do you think?
HICKS: I don’t know. Just to go see if there’s bigger hills or stuff.
[ATV STARTING AND DRIVING AWAY]
PLASKON: He says it’s okay to ride off-trail, as long as you don’t tear it up, or, in other words, ride real fast.
PLASKON: Riders are pushing to open more land, including parks, to these vehicles. One reason is because in some places trails and dunes are getting really crowded.
PLASKON: One place they’d like to open is the Mojave National Preserve. So far, most of it is still reserved for foot traffic. It expands across dunes, creosote brush, cinder cones, rocky peaks, squat cedars, and the crooked arms of Joshua trees. The county of San Bernadino and off-roaders have asked for 2,500 miles of ATV roads here, nearly the distance across the United States. Ranger Kirk Gebicke explains why it’s closed to ATVs.
GEBICKE: It’s desert, it’s slow, it’s cactus. You have some of that kind of stuff that may be 50, 75 years old and, you know, it’s trampled by a tire going over it. It’s going to take a long time for that scar, in essence, to heal.
PLASKON: And he says vehicles could also disturb some of the other 400,000 people who visit the park each year.
GEBICKE: Well, number one, just the very nature of wilderness is for a nice, quiet experience. Communing with nature, in essence. And having a vehicle go cruising by on the trail you just hiked three miles to get in kind of ruins it for folks that want that wilderness experience.
PLASKON: Gebicke’s concerns aren’t isolated. Some hunters in Idaho say they don't appreciate the ATVs rolling into their favored hunting grounds that take hours to reach on foot. In Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, the National Park Service says ATVs have created 22,000 miles of deep ruts that are disturbing water flow, habitat, and plant growth.
Ranger Gebicke says where there are limits, there’s often vandalism.
GEBICKE: Another common problem is that they will remove the stakes that designate it as a closure, and destroy them or just throw them down on the ground.
PLASKON: Stony Ward, the ATV tour operator, knows that enforcement is difficult. He’s seen off-roaders play cat-and-mouse to escape rangers.
WARD: Well, yeah, I mean, [laughs], I mean, if a guy’s in a Jeep and you’ve got an ATV, you’re going to go to areas where he can’t even fit through, if that’s the type of person you are.
PLASKON: Riders have also been developing political and financial muscle to match their numbers, sometimes with the backing of the oil, gas, and timber industries…also, contractors and anyone else who shares their interest in opening public lands.
The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a nonprofit lobbying group for off-road interests, gets magazine advertising for manufacturers like Yamaha, Honda, and Toyota. The Coalition’s new political action committee donated $50,000 to politicians last year. Its nonprofit side claims more than 600,000 members and spends more than $180,000 a year on legal fees.
Mark Trinka was a Blue Ribbon vice president and lobbyist for trails funding when the Coalition was a lot smaller. He likes the administration’s new federal rules that open the application process for more ATV roads.
TRINKA: Thank God for President Bush. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get a Democratic regime in Washington. But as long as President Bush has done what he’s done, he’s empowered local government, which is the best kind of government, at the lowest level, to really take control of the land within the boundaries of their counties and their cities.
PLASKON: Under this change, long sought by western governors and counties, a wide variety of people can apply to open roads to ATVs, using a law that predates the internal combustion engine. It’s a tersely-worded 1866 pioneer law intended to encourage settlement of the west. It gave states the right to claim roads on federal land.
The Bureau of Land Management says the new rules probably won’t have much effect at all. However, the National Park Service has said requests for new roads could affect the 68 national parks. There have been road claims in the Sequoia National Forest. Utah is asking for thousands of new roads, and environmental groups say Alaska will ask for many more.
Courtney Cuff of the National Parks Conservation Association says it’s hard to keep track of all the claims and they all probably won’t stick. But some will.
CUFF: There will not be as many places for hikers or passive recreationalists to enjoy if we open up the floodgates for these off-road vehicle users to run rampant across our public lands unabashed.
PLASKON: Off-road enthusiasts say they feel unfairly confined, and it’s time hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers learned to live with a new addition to the wilderness.
MALE: The whole thing is respecting each other. You know, when you see someone with a horse, you slow way down, shut your engines off and let the horses go by. You see a hiker out there and, you know, you slow by when you’re going past them. It’s just a common courtesy to the other people that are into different activities.
PLASKON: Wilderness advocates say this shared access with motorists doesn’t work. Even so, federal agencies will consider thousands of requests to open roads and trails across public lands for motorized use.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ky Plaskon from the Mojave Desert.
[MUSIC: Brian Hughes “Nasca Lines” A World Instrumental Collection, Putumayo World Music (1996)]
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