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Rough Riders 

Some ATV users are running amok through Southern Arizona landscapes

An angry man in frumpy khakis peers into a rutted wash. This desert beneath Panther Peak was once pristine, he's saying, abuzz with wildlife and hikers. But today, it's a just another tormented landscape on the city's battered fringes--a badlands where crumbling banks, shredded cactus, toppled palo verdes and shattered Bud bottles scream of ATV freaks run amok.

Over several years, the angry man has cajoled and compromised and tried to be cool. But he's got no patience left for off-roaders who storm these northern flanks of the Tucson Mountains. It's not enough, he says, that motorized morons careen around state trust land and the Saguaro National Park. Now they're even ripping across his own Picture Rocks-area homestead with roaring engines and intimidating glares.

But fighting back exacts a price: Fearing retaliation, he asks that his real name not be used. We'll call him Don. "One of my neighbors told some kids on quad-runners to stay off his land," Don says. "Then the kids' parents came back and threatened him. We're talking about trashy people."

Like a scene from The Wild Ones, all-terrain honchos have nearly commandeered this wildcat subdivision sprawling across unincorporated northern Pima County. And no one seems able to do much about it. The Sheriff's Department doesn't have enough manpower to post someone onsite. Even when deputies spot errant off-roaders, they're rarely caught outright. "One deputy tore his radiator out chasing after them," says Don. "That's how bad it gets."

Even other riders are exasperated by the mayhem. "Groups like ours advocate responsible use of ATVs," says Kent Nicholls, president of the Southern Arizona Off-Road Coalition. "The problem is that a small minority out there don't respect nature or the considerable impact they can have on others."

But the Sheriff's Department hears about that impact often, says Lt. Mike Sacco. "Unfortunately, apprehension is difficult, in terms of staffing and equipment. Whenever we receive a call, we dispatch people and try to identify who the riders are, and try to apprehend them that way, rather than chasing them down at the time. Once we get a hold of them, we can educate them about trespassing and off-highway vehicle laws."

For its part, the Arizona Land Department has even fewer patrolling abilities. "We oversee more than 3 million acres (of state trust land)," says spokesman Richard Hubbard, "and our enforcement staff is small."

Even the feds seem stymied, as off-roaders go beyond state land buffers and into Saguaro National Park. Although the state property is within park boundaries, "We have no jurisdiction on the state land," says Chief Ranger Bob Love. "It's a huge concern."

To stop the damage, Love hopes to spark talks with Arizona officials in the near future. "We'd like to get an MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) with them," he says, "so we could begin assisting with enforcement."

Complaints from apprehensive Picture Rocks residents are also common in the offices of Sharon Bronson, who represents them on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. "And it's not only in Picture Rocks," she says. "It's also going on the southeast side, where supervisors get calls, but callers want to remain anonymous because they fear retribution."

The bottom line, Bronson says, is a shortage of warm bodies. "In the urban, unincorporated areas of Pima County, we simply can't enforce (ATV restrictions), because we'd have to post a sheriff's deputy out there 24 hours a day. And that just isn't feasible."

Instead, she's pushing for stricter noise ordinances and a registration program to rein in ATV miscreants. Program fees would go toward creating additional, legitimate off-road recreation areas in Pima County.

Unfortunately, this problem isn't limited to a troubled swath of Sonoran Desert. It's been building since the modern ATV's progenitor first blasted across the American landscape in the 1950s, and people were suddenly able to pierce wilderness areas with gas-powered ease. In recent years, those machines have grown remarkably sophisticated, powerful and popular: National ATV sales grew from 350,000 in 1990 to 1.4 million in 2000.

According to the Arizona State Parks department, nearly 17 percent of Pima County households include off-road vehicle users. And 6 percent of Arizonans headed to Pima County for their off-road fun in 2003. Throughout a given year, off-roaders directly or indirectly contribute more than $400 million to the local economy.

Not surprisingly, these numbers have fueled a financial stimulus to look the other way. And they've left land managers struggling to keep up--under confusing signals from above. Since first coming to office, the Bush administration has fought to open more roadless areas to motorized vehicles. Symbolically, it also quickly reversed a Clinton plan to completely ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park by this year. Instead, President Bush and congressional Republicans have squeezed into the current spending bill a measure that continues allowing up to 720 raucous snowmobiles daily into the nation's iconic park.

Fighting that kind of momentum is a daunting task for well-meaning government officials, and for regular folks like Don. "You know," he says, wiping a furrowed brow, "I used to try to work with these ATV guys, but they blew it. No more compromise. I've had it, and I'm not backing down."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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