Motorizing Public Land

The good news: We still have many pristine roadless areas. The bad news: Off-road vehicles are blasting through them at alarming rates. Motorizing Public Land by Ted Williams From the March 2000 *Audubon* November 27, 1999, found me at the "spring hole" in my 12-foot fishing scow in the warm, misty finish of a New Hampshire squall. I had come here with brothers-in-law Wiz and Barry to escape sundry irritations, including a fifth meal of turkey. Propelled by our bowed rods, fat, gaudy yellow perch shot over the low gunwales. Gear down and wings set, Canada geese sailed across the north end of our island and spiraled into Schneider’s Cove. Now lake and forest were still, save for the splashing of hooked fish, the mutterings of mergansers, and the distant whistle of goldeneye wings. Then half a dozen all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) appeared on the mainland shore, roaring and racing, rousting the waterfowl. They sashayed through the swamp and hurled mud and vegetation 30 feet into the air. Finally, one got stuck. In winter, when I do my serious perch fishing, snowmobilers race over the frozen lake and across the spring hole, which never freezes, because they like to see how far their craft can carry them on open water. No longer do I attempt to kick them off our island–a posted, 280-acre wildlife sanctuary. While they stress the wildlife and make it unsafe for us to ski or hike on the narrow trails, they are quieter than they were 20 years ago and easier on ground cover than the ATVs. I am not anti—internal combustion. In fact, I agree with Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, who proclaims that off-road vehicles (ORVs)–which include ATVs, snowmobiles, and motorized dirt bikes–are "the only way many people can realistically enjoy our public lands" and that "as baby boomers age and society continues to urbanize, more and more people may turn to off-road vehicles as their primary way of enjoying the great outdoors." Mounted on my fishing scow is a six-horse, two-stroke outboard because a four-stroke, though far quieter and cleaner, would sink it. Two-stroke engines–which power most outboard boats and ORVs–are crude, filthy devices. At least a quarter of the fuel they "consume" enters the environment unburned, via the exhaust. But there’s a difference between outboards and ORVs. My motor gets me to the spring hole, then I shut it off. Riding ORVs, on the other hand, has become recreation unto itself; mainly they are used to provide thrills, not transportation. What moves and inspires most ORV operators is different from what moves and inspires most other people who gravitate toward wild land. For example, my outboard–which bears no model name other than "6MSHY"–is manufactured by Yamaha, a company that also offers a line of ATVs named, it would seem, for the noise they make (Banshee and Blaster) or the predators they displace (Grizzly, Kodiak, Wolverine, Timberwolf, Big Bear, and Badger). I can and do live with ORVs. But where should I go for quietude and wildness: to hear the sigh of wind through canyons and forest canopies, the music of flowing water, the hum and clatter of insects, the songs of birds, the silence of winter? A national park? BLM land? Perhaps. But last winter nearly 200,000 snowmobiles were allowed to enter 38 national park units, and about 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands have areas open to snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and ATVs. They regularly trespass on wilderness, and the Forest Service even allows them in wilderness study areas. Moreover, they are not among the environmental menaces the Clinton administration is trying to remove from roadless areas. After promoting ORVs for 30 years, the agencies that administer public land are suddenly wishing that they hadn’t. In the 1980s snowmobiles were basically restricted by their own design to groomed trails, and until 1990–when the ORV lobby got the Forest Service to cancel its ban on off-road vehicles wider than 40 inches–ATVs were effectively prohibited from national forests. Now, with wider bases and more powerful engines, ORVs of all sorts engage in "high pointing" contests, in which the object is to see how steep a slope you can negotiate without tipping over. The new snowmobiles can exceed 110 miles per hour. Are they appropriate in our wildest and best public land–Yellowstone National Park, for instance? From mid-december to mid-March, Yellowstone bans cars from most of the park, but it welcomes snowmobiles on 189 miles of snow-covered roads. One of these machines can emit as many hydrocarbons as 1,000 cars and as much carbon monoxide as 250 cars–and there are about 80,000 snowmobiles in the park each season. Park employees complain of headaches, nausea, and throat irritation from the pollution, and fresh air has to be pumped into the entrance booths. The Bluewater Network, leader of the national campaign to keep snowmobiles out of the park, calculates that in addition to befouling the air, two-stroke snowmobile engines dump 180,000 to 210,000 gallons of unburned gasoline and motor oil on Yellowstone’s ecosystems each season. "We believe that the mode of winter transportation, primarily snowmobiles, tends to overwhelm the experience of visiting the park," comments John Sacklin, Yellowstone’s chief planner. That’s why there are laws against it. By allowing snowmobile use in Yellowstone, the Park Service has flouted not only the Clean Air Act but its own Organic Act, which mandates that public enjoyment of a park leave it "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," and President Nixon’s Executive Order 11644 (later reinforced by Jimmy Carter), which forbids federal land-management agencies from permitting ORV use unless they demonstrate that doing so won’t compromise natural values. As Yellowstone’s superintendent, Michael Finley, puts it in his current bid to limit snowmobiles, "We are not debating some abstract scientific interpretation here. We are deciding if we are going to pass Yellowstone on to our children in good condition." Finley’s life would be easier and his park quieter and cleaner had the Park Service traditionally been less infatuated with snowmobiles. In 1973, when there were already 30,000 of them in Yellowstone each winter, Superintendent Jack Anderson received the International Award of Merit from the International Snowmobile Industry Association for showing "enlightened leadership and sincere dedication to the improvement and advancement of snowmobiling in the United States." The following year he designated most of Yellowstone’s primary roads as snowmobile routes. In 1977, two years after he retired, he called snowmobiling "a great experience and a great sport, one of the cleanest types of recreation I know" and prescribed earplugs for those offended by the noise. John Townsley, who took over for Anderson in 1975, successfully defended snowmobiling against none other than Interior Secretary James Watt–an effort for which he, too, won the snowmobile industry’s International Award of Merit. When Robert Barbee replaced Townsley in 1983, he attempted to get a line on the problem, but by then it was like hooking a submarine. Now that Barbee is running the national parks in Alaska, he’s trying to remove snowmobiles permanently from about a third of Denali National Park and Preserve. "We don’t want Denali to become another Yellowstone," he says. On the rest of our public land–basically that tended by the BLM and the Forest Service–the situation is even worse. And any manager who tries to control ORVs gets to eat their dust. Last summer members of the Montana Wildlife Federation helped the Forest Service gate and post critical wildlife habitat in the Helena National Forest. In exchange, ORV users were granted new access to a different area. The deal was a model of multiple use in action, but in November malcontents tore down the signs, sawed off the posts, and pulled up the gates, doing several thousand dollars’ worth of damage. The BLM and the Forest Service actually permit ORV races. There are, however, certain basic rules. For instance, on the Owyhee Front, across the Snake River from Boise, Idaho, the BLM proscribes "bomb-run starts," in which 100 or so dirt bikes line up, pop wheelies, and send ground cover into orbit. On May 20, 1998, the BLM’s Owyhee field manager, Daryl Albiston, sent a letter to an off-road-motorcycle club called Dirt, Inc., advising it that its races on March 21 and 22 had been in violation because: bikers traversed the course "as many times as possible for a two-hour period" instead of just once; "an unauthorized new trail was developed"; racers ventured "off trail"; and "spectators on motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, and in trucks were allowed to drive off the existing road and trail network." Dirt, Inc. was instructed in writing to rehabilitate the area with fencing and native seeds, but it refused to do so. When it was reminded in writing, it refused again. The upshot was that the BLM allowed Dirt, Inc. to race on September 26, 1998. Later Albiston sent the group a letter advising it that it again had violated regulations by: not marking "the passing zone for sensitive plants"; "rerouting" a part of the course without authorization; creating "a new connector trail"; and allowing spectator vehicles to "travel off of the established roads." Still, Dirt, Inc. was permitted to race again on May 23, 1999. This time the violations chronicled by Albiston included: a bomb-run start; failure to stay on "the designated trail," which resulted in the destruction of "many shrubs"; allowing spectators "on motorcycles, ATVs, and trucks" to drive over vegetated land; and leaving flags, posts, and signs on public land. Dirt, Inc. plans to race next on April 2. Albiston won’t tell me if he’s going to authorize yet another race but says I "can probably guess what’s going to happen." Indeed I can. In 1995 the General Accounting Office investigated ORV management on BLM and Forest Service land to see if Nixon’s and Carter’s executive orders were being obeyed. They weren’t. "At all locations," reads the report, "off-highway vehicle use was being monitored casually rather than systematically; adverse effects were seldom being documented." Under Dombeck the Forest Service is at least doing better than the BLM. All 155 national forests are drafting traffic-management plans that include ORVs. The agency is struggling to decide how to manage at least 60,000 miles of "ghost roads"–illegal routes created by ORV use. "Our position is that no policy of the Forest Service should encourage the creation of illegal roads and trails," Dombeck’s chief of staff, Chris Wood, told me. "But the fact is that a lot of them already exist. Sticking your head in the sand and saying, ‘We didn’t authorize them, so we’re going to close them’ is kind of an untenable approach." Maybe so. And now that Dombeck is changing the mission of the Forest Service from resource extraction to resource stewardship with such measures as his recently proposed protection of roadless areas from logging, road construction, and mining, he’s catching hell from a cabal of timber, mineral, and ORV interests. "We’ve got the sledgehammer out on a number of issues right now," says Wood. "This is one that requires a little bit more finesse at a more local level." Yet studying each illegal road that has been or will be created to see if it’s ORV-worthy is going to cost manpower and resources the agency does not have, and regulations don’t matter anyway, because it can’t provide enforcement. An internal monitoring report from the Wayne National Forest in Ohio reads as follows: "Whether we look at the designated trail system or the non-ORV management areas, we have no control over off-road-vehicle use. We install signs and they are ripped out. We erect barriers and they are removed or ridden around. We rehab areas and they are violated again and again. We provide virtually no law-enforcement presence on the Forest when use is highest. Whether it is the Wayne or any other Forest, the concept of ‘off-road vehicle’ is contrary to the mission of the National Forests. We cannot, regardless of dollars, maintain trails that will not erode into our streams. And we cannot control users equipped with vehicles designed to go on all types of terrain." In October the BLM and the Forest Service published a joint environmental-impact statement for Montana, North Dakota, and parts of South Dakota in which assessing ghost roads for ORV use is the preferred alternative. "The EIS is horrible," says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Gayle Joslin, who led a drive in which the Montana Wildlife Society raised $73,700 to prepare a report on the ways ORVs hurt wildlife. "The agencies put together a committee to define trails; it took them 18 months. The definition of an ORV trail they came up with–and I kid you not–is one that has been used by a motorized vehicle. This even includes game trails!" Greg Munther, who retired as the Lolo National Forest’s Nine-Mile District Ranger after 31 years with the Forest Service, had this to say: "The Forest Service and BLM chose out of political convenience not to take on these illegal roads. They told us professionals for years that the only way to have a legitimate road was to properly design it with respect to grade and drainage. Now they’ve accepted these ghost roads for years while they go through this endless analysis." Carrying the ORV industry’s gas–and venting it–is the BlueRibbon Coalition, one of the original signatories to the Wise Use Agenda, an official platform hatched by Seattle-area propagandist Ron Arnold and convicted tax-fraud felon Alan M. Gottlieb that advocates the sale and development of public land as well as the suspension of federal statutory protection for "non-adaptive species." The coalition is jointly funded by Yamaha, Honda, Polaris, Ski-doo, and Horizon, and lists among its members scores of motor-head clubs with names like the Missouri Mudders, and such firms and cartels as the Western States Petroleum Association, American Forest & Paper Association, Boise Cascade, Idaho Cattle Association, Committee for Public Access to Public Lands, Idaho Mining Association, and Northwest Mining Association. Cofounder and director Clark Collins defines Forest Service Chief Dombeck’s temporary moratorium on new logging roads as a wilderness-expansion plot by the "GAGs" (green advocacy groups, which he has also referred to as "hate groups" and "nature Nazis"). And in late August he launched the Wilderness Act Reform Coalition, to gut the statute that the ORV-timber-mining axis most loves to hate. But in addition to spewing rhetoric and fumes, the BlueRibbon Coalition gets things done. In 1999 it prevailed on Congress to fund the lapsed National Recreational Trails program, thereby providing the states with $270 million over six years, at least a third of which will be used to build and improve ORV trails on public land. And it manipulates hunters and fishers with remarkable success. One of the coalition’s six "industry supporters" is the Outdoor Channel, the first full-time cable network with a programming focus on hunting and fishing and which reaches 11 million homes across the nation. It includes the coalition on its web-site links to "conservation" organizations and gives it plenty of airtime to tub-thump for motorization and privatization of public land. Jake Hartwick, the Outdoor Channel’s executive ice-president, advises me that "wise-use groups are defending the very foundation of our system" and that "environmental groups are advocating the complete abolition of private-property rights." He warns that "the Forest Service is locking up roads at an alarming rate." But not all sportsmen are so easily seduced, and when you strip away the mirrors, gongs, water, and dry ice, Clark Collins becomes a little man in a Wizard of Oz suit. In the BlueRibbon Coalition’s home state of Idaho–domain of its effusive champion, Rep. Helen Chenoweth–the state Fish and Game Department reports that at least 86 percent of elk hunters find that encounters with motorized vehicles detract from their outdoor experience. Less than 5 percent of the 8,500 members of the Montana Wildlife Federation (composed basically of hunters and anglers) own ORVs, and the group is asking the Forest Service to close all roads that don’t service full-size vehicles. Declares Jim Posewitz, director of the Montana-based sportsmen’s support group Orion–the Hunter’s Institute: "The presence of ATVs on public hunting grounds will probably be one of the largest contributors to loss of hunting opportunity that we’ve yet experienced. It puts the animals at a disadvantage. It violates the security that wildlife once had in difficult terrain. The Forest Service and BLM have decided to disenfranchise the people who have followed the law and empower those who have violated it. We’re battling this terrible EIS tooth and claw. Those of us who have participated in nonmotorized use have no way to stake a comparable claim." Clark Collins blames the unpopularity of ORVs on the behavior of "bad apples," and maybe he’s right. But because the new machines can go where there is no enforcement, bad apples proliferate. Evaluating this year’s "600cc mountain line" snowmobiles for SnoWest magazine, Steve Janes of the SnoWest test crew filed this report in the magazine’s October 1999 issue: "In the four days of riding in Quebec, we estimate that we violated around 652 laws or regulations. But since our crew’s motto was ‘If you can’t break parts, break laws,’ we acted naive and ‘wandered’ off the groomed trails in search of test areas." The 500 combat missions flown by Colonel George Buchner over Vietnam didn’t prepare him for ORV combat in Michigan, where the machines had done an estimated $1 billion worth of damage, tearing up ground cover so badly that utility poles were falling over. Where Lake Huron collects the Au Sable River system, Buchner found trespassing ATV operators popping wheelies in his private trout stream. When he demanded their names, one rider dismounted and attacked him, breaking his nose. When he fenced his posted stream and property, ORV operators cut the wire and pulled the stakes. When he reinforced the stakes with cement, they knocked them down. When he and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs successfully pushed for a state ORV policy of "closed unless posted open," he received death threats, his streetlights were shot out, his mailbox smashed, his driveway seeded with broken glass, the eight-strand fence on his Christmas tree farm cut in 88 places, and his wife run over. "Robin was screaming," he said, "and the guy calmly cranked up his machine and finished running over her. He’d come through multiple barriers, multiple posted signs, three fences, and a gate. She had a hematoma extending the length of her leg." In July 1996 Buchner confronted two trespassing ATV operators, one of whom knocked him down. "Basically, ORVs ran me out of Michigan," Buchner told me from his Arizona home. But in the end the problem comes down not so much to the nature of ORV users as to the nature of ORVs. They are designed to go "off road," where motorized vehicles don’t belong. Their noise is undemocratic–like second-hand smoke. They need to be removed from our wildest and best public land–not because regulations can’t control them (although they can’t), not because most people hate them (although they do), but because they intrude and usurp. Snowmobile din now penetrates five miles into the backcountry of our first national park. Winter visitors are having trouble hearing the geysers, and winter-stressed elk and bison are being driven from the forage of open meadows and the shallow snow of thermal areas, which they desperately require. In order for ORV operators to do their thing, everyone else, including wildlife, must cease doing theirs–at least in part. ORVs have their place, and, as Chief Dombeck notes, many people can’t enjoy our public lands without them. But when there’s no escape from ORVs, the rest of us can’t enjoy our public lands either. - 30 - Ted Williams has issues with jetskis, too. What You Can Do Stop traffic "Off-road-vehicle users have been strategic in ways that environmentalists have not been," says the Forest Service’s Chris Wood. "They are organized, they speak with one voice, and they are effective." The BlueRibbon Coalition tells members to crank it up and establish "traditional use" on public land that "GAGs" (green advocacy groups) want to "lock up." To help keep ORVs out of pristine places, write your congressman, your newspaper, and the Forest Service ( Tell land managers who are allowing inappropriate ORV use that there ought to be a few places no one can drive to. For more information on the Bluewater Network’s anti-ORV campaign, visit