As the weather warms across the West, thousands of off-highway vehicles are warming up as well, preparing for another season of riding the vast web of roads and trails traversing federal lands.
But as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management begin placing restrictions on off-highway vehicle (OHV) use, such motorized travel will become more restricted just as the popularity of the sport skyrockets.
Indeed, the tension between OHV users' quest for open access and critics' calls for greater regulation -- particularly as damage to soils, plants and wildlife habitat becomes more prevalent -- is attracting unprecedented attention as agency officials craft "travel management plans" that restrict OHVs to designated trails while closing many other routes.
"I think the stars are really aligned right now to really solve this problem," said Harrison Schmitt, executive director of Responsible Trails America, which advocates better regulation and enforcement of OHV use. "If we don't deal with it now, the problem is going to spin out of control."
But the Forest Service and BLM are taking two very different approaches to regulating OHVs. While national forests are required to complete travel management plans by the end of this year, BLM is on a much longer timeline, allowing 10 to 15 years for its managers to craft such plans.
Rob Perrin, BLM's trails and travel management program coordinator, said the agencies' different timetables are the result of both deliberation and financial circumstance. "We really want to make sure there's a lot of public involvement, and also, we don't have the resources -- it allows us to spread the cost over more time," Perrin said.
But with each passing year, more OHV enthusiasts are flocking to federal lands around the West, bringing with them the potential for further environmental damage. Meanwhile, environmentalists and many landowners whose properties are adjacent to federal lands say the lack of adequate enforcement resources could render the new trail designations meaningless.
Increased use 'virtually everywhere'
According to federal officials, the new travel management plan process, adopted by the Forest Service in 2005 and BLM in 2007, should help land managers better oversee and direct OHV use on public lands. But with hundreds of thousands of roads and trails to examine, under intense public scrutiny, the drafting of such plans is a daunting undertaking for many managers.
By Forest Service estimates, the number of OHVs motoring through national forests has increased from about 3 million in 1993 to about 11 million today. BLM estimates that one-third of the 50 million visitors to BLM units each year are now off-roaders.
Part of the increase can be traced to population growth: About 41 million people now live within 200 miles of federal lands, and about half of those live within 30 miles of a public land unit, according to BLM.
Such close proximity is bound to create conflicts among various user groups.
OHV groups acknowledge the rising concern over OHV use. "Over the past few years, use has increased virtually everywhere," said Russ Ehnes of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. "One thing that happens when you have more use is you have more problems, just by virtue of the volume."
Ehnes, who has conducted workshops to help riders become involved in the trail designation process, said he supports BLM and Forest Service efforts to manage OHV use. Otherwise, unregulated use could spur a backlash against off-roaders -- even responsible ones, he said.
"This will be the management tool that will ensure we have routes well into the future," Ehnes said.
The Forest Service has identified OHV use as one of four key threats to national forests and grasslands. BLM, too, is struggling to manage OHVs against mounting evidence that their use poses a threat to natural resources.
"Wise management of OHVs and balancing the needs of all the users of the public lands is a continuing challenge," said BLM Deputy Director Henry Bisson at a congressional hearing on OHV use on federal lands last June. He added that coming up with designated route systems on 258 million acres is "an enormously complex" undertaking, adding that "over the next decade, the BLM will work with the public to continue mapping the West's public access travel networks."
But critics say a decade is too long, and that a considerable amount of damage could be done in that time by reckless riding. "I think given the immediacy of this problem, we'd obviously like to see BLM put more of an emphasis on regulating cross-country travel and regulating routes," Schmitt said. "It's a big resource issue, and 10 years is a long time."
While BLM first issued a national strategy for OHV use in 2001, it did not direct its field offices to restrict OHVs primarily to designated trails until 2007, two years after the Forest Service issued its travel management rule.
According to BLM guidance documents, agency units are to undertake travel management plans when they revise their resource management plans, which are to be updated every 10 to 15 years. They can also receive a five-year extension if they cannot complete both plans simultaneously.
Perrin said that 88 BLM units have completed travel management plans so far, while the remaining 200 or so units will be complete plans within the next 10 to 15 years.
Meanwhile, OHVs continue to take to the West's roads and trails in record numbers, resulting in mounting challenges for resource managers, ranging from erosion and habitat damage to rider accidents and injuries to vandalism of cultural sites.
Perrin said that on average, BLM has one law enforcement officer for every 1 million acres it oversees. "That's like having two police officers for the entire state of Delaware," he said.
The Forest Service, too, is grappling with enforcement issues. A 2007 survey of Forest Service law enforcement officers found that the median patrol area for a single officer was 444,000 acres, and 86 percent believed there were too few law enforcement officers for their area.
In one recent case that illustrates the paucity of enforcement of OHV rules on federal lands, last month, about 100 off-roaders drove up the bed of the Paria River in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- an area that has been closed to motor vehicles for a decade.
Similar stories are recounted throughout the West.
In New Mexico, the state environment department joined local landowners and environmental advocates in lamenting the lack of enforcement of OHV closures in the Santa Fe National Forest's Jemez Ranger District, resulting in eroded trails and denuded wildlife habitat (Land Letter, May 14). And in California, a report by the State Water Resources Control Board identified OHV use as a major source of water quality problems on the Los Padres National Forest.
To fill the enforcement gap, some land managers are increasingly relying on local law enforcement and even peer pressure from responsible off-roaders to rein in reckless riders.
"If there's a future in improving law enforcement, it's going to be in those kinds of collaborations, working with local law enforcement officials as much as possible," Perrin said, adding that the new plans and good maps will also help off-roaders stay on designated trails, reducing the need for law enforcement in the first place.
Federal agencies are also getting some help from the states.
In Colorado, lawmakers recently passed a new law authorizing state "peace officers" with the Division of Wildlife to issue citations to OHV riders who venture off designated trails on federal lands. About 30 other states are considering various proposals to address OHV issues, including vehicle registration for easier identification of rule-breakers.
"We think any opportunity to aid the agencies will help them get control of this issue," said Aaron Clark, campaign director for the Southern Rockies Conservation Alliance in Colorado, which pushed for the new state law.
Rider education will also help reduce violations and resource damage, OHV groups said.
Bruce Whitcher, vice president for land resources and public policy for the California Off-Road Vehicle Association, said education will be crucial in ensuring that riders comply with the new trail designations on federal lands.
"We'll be losing a whole lot of routes," Whitcher said. "And unfortunately, a significant number of users will not follow the rules and are in fact openly stating they will just ride there anyway, and even build new trails to replace the closed ones. That is going to hurt us. We have a lot of education to do to get users to obey the rules."
"Regulation is important, but education is also equally important," National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council's Ehnes added.
Schmitt, of Responsible Trails America, said that while some OHV groups are "doing great work," other off-roaders are still ignoring trail closures and skirting state and federal rules.
But the overall trend is toward more responsible riding, Schmitt said. "That will be key to a lasting solution -- when there's a cultural shift in the community itself leading to more responsible use."
Recent political shifts may also spur quicker action on OHV use.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced this week that he has nominated Bob Abbey, a former state director of BLM's Nevada office who has worked with Rangers for Responsible Recreation, to crack down on irresponsible OHV use, as BLM director.
On the rangers' campaign Web site, Abbey characterizes OHV use on public lands as "one of the greatest challenges facing land managers today" and calls for more closures.
"There appears to be a total disregard by many off-roaders of the impacts from their actions," Abbey said. "The public land managers have no other option than to close more of these lands to off-road vehicle use unless off-roaders begin exercising responsibility and better judgment."
April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.