Bailey: The assault on our lands

By By Ben Bailey

By Ben Bailey

Utah’s lands are under attack. This threat doesn’t come from al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, but from off-road vehicle drivers who go off trail or ride in closed areas. All-terrain vehicles or off-road vehicles — no matter how you choose to describe them — mean the destruction of our wild lands.

“The off-road vehicle problem (is) one of the most serious public land use problems that we face,” the Council of Environmental Quality said. This warning was sounded nearly 30 years ago and fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the government still hears and sees no evil as the threat has risen along with the number of ORVs.

The terror alert for our wild lands went into code red as the Bush administration and its cronies at the Bureau of Land Management proposed to open up an additional 11-million acres of pristine wilderness areas throughout Utah, including 15,000 miles of trails. These areas include outdoor enthusiasts’ favorite spots such as Desolation Canyon, the Book Cliffs, Fisher Towers, the San Rafael Swell, Parunuweap Canyon, the Canaan Mountain area and Indian Creek, which will face desecration if they are opened up to motorized vehicle use.

Already, Utah has more than 100,000 miles of ORV trails — about four times the circumference of the Earth — yet, the cries come in from ATV and ORV organizations and riders, saying they don’t have enough trails to ride.

This falsely perceived lack of terrain, or the thrill of blazing a new trail, seduces riders off trail at the expense of the natural environment and the wildlife the land supports. The soil, streams and vegetation face increased erosion and runoff, and invasive, non-native plants take over the weakened terrain. Once off-road vehicles take their toll on the land, these roadless areas suffer such extensive damage that they are rarely designated as wilderness or take years, hundreds of thousands of dollars and an army of volunteers to restore, which was the case for the hills above Lindon and Pleasant Grove. For example, even after three years, barricades, $200,000 and the countless hours of volunteer work, only half of the Dry Canyon Trail has been restored. Problems with erosion and an invasion of weeds continue to plague the rest of the trail as well as the 22 miles of illegal trails that stretch from Grove Creek to American Fork Canyon. Numerous other areas face similar problems.

Archaeological sites, such as the 100 estimated sites in Arch Canyon, are also at risk as cultural artifacts are destroyed under the wheels of illegal ORVs. Physical damage isn’t the only threat. Campers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts seeking solitude are smothered under the drone of the combustion engine.

The Rangers for Responsible Recreation did a survey of nearly 300 BLM and Forest Service rangers and supervisors across five states, including Utah, and found 91 percent of rangers described ORV users as posing a “significant law enforcement problem.” Another 53 percent of the rangers believed the problems were “out of control.”

“There seems to be an entrenched renegade element within the off-highway vehicle community,” said former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service Jim Furnish. “I would characterize the attitude as ‘We’re going to go where we want, we’re going to do what we want, we don’t care.'”

Let’s be clear — not all ATV and ORV riders are a problem. The ORV and ATV industries are taking steps to curb the growing problem with initiatives such as the Tread Lightly and Utah OHV Trail Patrol programs. These are a great start to encouraging responsible riding and monitoring those who go off trail, but they fall short because participation is voluntary.

The reality is that many ORV and ATV riders aren’t fazed by the measly $50 dollar fine for going off trail or to wild lands that are closed off to motorized vehicles. Instead, stiff penalties and the possible revocation of fishing and hunting privileges, as well as possible confiscation of vehicles that cause problems, would send a message that could help protect our wild lands.

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