It's Memorial Day weekend - the first fling for outdoor summer recreation. If you're like me, you and your family will probably enjoy some form of outdoor activity this weekend, from a backyard BBQ to a backpack venture. Unfortunately, there's a growing chance, especially on western public lands, that irresponsible off-road vehicle (ORV) riders will ruin our weekend. This growing minority of rudely reckless riders terrorize quiet users by spinning donuts in campgrounds, speeding on forest roads and tearing cross-country through the boonies, wherever they want, consequences to others and the land be damned.
Not only do thoughtless ORV cowboys ruin the outdoor experience for other public lands users, they trespass on private property and do serious and lasting damage to fish and wildlife habitat. If that's not bad enough, a growing number of outlaw off-roaders react violently when confronted by law enforcement, other public lands users or property owners.
America is endowed with millions of acres of publicly accessible land suitable for a multitude of uses: hiking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and backpacking, for a few examples. But darned if I can understand how our last best outdoor places were ever allowed to become play parks for motorized recreation, legal or otherwise. Off-roaders have access to 206.3 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - roughly equal to the size of California, Colorado and New York combined. Add that to the tens of thousands of miles of roads and trails the U.S Forest Service has opened to motor vehicles and the uncounted areas operated by states, municipalities and private owners. Yet "legitimate" users and their organizations clamor constantly for more and more, while the outlaws among them just don't give a damn about ... much of anything but their own cheap thrills. They blatantly make their own trails, ignore "No Trespassing" signs (as caretaker for a large chunk of private land I know this from hard personal experience) and even cut fences. Look at the Pike/San Isabel National Forest in Colorado. The scars ORVs have already carved into that terrain won't likely heal in my lifetime. In short, ORVs, through over-use as well as abuse, increasingly make it impossible for other users to enjoy the outdoors.
As an active outdoorsman, I can't tell you the number of times in the past decade that I've had my hunt or hike or camping experience ruined - what should have been a quiet, relaxing outdoor experience transmogrified into a screaming nightmare -- by ATV or off-road motorcycle riders going where they know they shouldn't. Most of my former favorite hunting areas are now useless to me and to the animals I hunt, thanks to the minority ORV menace.
The ORV problem has gotten so serious that officials are in some areas are forced to close formally legal ORV riding areas to curtail habitat destruction and user conflict. And for that I applaud them. Officials in North Carolina closed the Upper Tellico ORV area last October after discovering that sediment from motorized trails was reaching the Tellico River. In Arizona, the Sonoran Desert National Monument was closed to ORVs in 2008 to allow the landscape to regenerate. In Washington state, authorities estimate it will take $6 million to restore the Reiter Pit because of ORV damage. Can't ORV riders and the groups that so forcefully represent them see that they are their own worst enemies -- not "liberal extremists" or whoever else they may choose to use as scapegoats? This mouthy minority is not only noisy, it's insatiable. "We want our share, and we want your share too!" seems to be their motto.
So what can we do to make sure that irresponsible ORV riding doesn't ruin this holiday weekend and this and other summers to come? Some states and localities have passed laws that give law enforcement more tools to address the problem. Others are reallocating ORV registration funds from traditionally purely self-promoting uses, primarily trail building and maintenance, to help fund the full range of impacts on the land and other users caused by motorized recreation, specifically law enforcement and repair of damaged habitat. Here in my home state of Colorado, the State Parks Board has the opportunity to support real, meaningful ORV management reform through "sticker funds" reallocation, though the ORV lobby is fighting hard for the insupportable status quo. I hope the Parks Board does what they know is right from every perspective, rather than bending spinelessly to the stingy demands of the state ORV lobby group. How much more public support do they need to enact reform than the relentless input they've been hearing for months from more than 40 Colorado organizations representing sportsmen, property owners, law enforcement and conservation? Hunters and anglers pay for our own law enforcement through license fees. Why should the most damaging and disruptive public lands user group of all be allowed to escape the responsibility of self-policing?
But with so much public and private land being impacted, states and municipalities can only do so much, even when they try. We need Congress to step up and enact meaningful national ORV management guidelines. This means setting "attention getting" minimum penalties for lawless riding and sharply escalating penalties for repeat offenders. It also means visible IDs for ORVs, like what the Coast Guard is doing with maritime vessels. As it stands, with no license plates and hiding behind dark-colored helmet face shields, outlaw riders are anonymous, a fact they take maximum advantage of and fight hard to maintain.
And consider this: If in fact, as the ORV lobby constantly claims, all the countless and constant ORV rider conduct problems America experiences daily all are the doing of "a few bad apples," then why won't legitimate riders and their clubs help us get rid of those bums by supporting such basics as increased law enforcement and visible ID plates, rather than continuing to protect and facilitate the cancer within? As things now stand, the public is left to believe it's not just "a few bad apples," but the whole stinking ORV orchard that's rotten.
I hope we all have safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences this Memorial Day weekend - whether on foot, bike or motorized vehicle. But with the growing number of reckless riders, it's guaranteed that for far too many among us, our holiday weekend will be ruined by ORV abuse and overuse. It sucks.