Congress and the Bureau of Land Management need to ban off-roading

Tearing up habitats, destroying vegetation and filling the air with noxious fumes must make for one hell of a ride. How else to explain off-road enthusiasts indulging their motorized inner Neanderthal while leaving the rest of us to suck up their dust?

Before the invasion of public lands by all-terrain vehicles, the greatest annoyance hikers faced was the malodorous surprise of horse manure in unlikely places. These days hikers, birders and others, who simply hope to enjoy some peace and quiet, are more likely to encounter some yahoo tooling around on a noisome ATV with a piercing high-revving engine and deep-treaded tires ripping up trails--or worse, going off-trail--and generally trashing the environment.

Irresponsible off-roading has become so serious that Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals, calls it "the single greatest threat to American landscapes."

"One person on one vehicle can do a huge amount of damage in one day. Multiply that by thousands," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and Southwest director of PEER, describing the breadth of the problem. Patterson, who also serves as Rangers for Responsible Recreation co-coordinator, said Reddington Pass and Ironwood Forest National Monument--two areas outlying Tucson--are in need of more aggressive management.

Ironwood's fragile desert environment and its archeological sites make it an especially sensitive area. Besides the damage done by off-roaders carving new trails, when they lead to petroglyphs, there is the added threat of harm to archeological artifacts.

As a first step in addressing these problems, Patterson would like to see the Bureau of Land Management take measures to at least temporarily ban off-road vehicles at Ironwood, an action the agency is in the process of taking in a section of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

That closure will affect approximately 88 miles of road southeast of the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness Area and last from two to three years, estimates Karen Kelleher, monument manager. Such closures give the agency an opportunity to try to restore the torn-up landscape, including vegetation and habitats.

In addition to the negative environmental consequences of ATVs, off-road vehicles present the No. 1 law-enforcement problem facing the BLM, according to agency statistics compiled by PEER.

Driving under the influence, reckless driving, driving in a closed area, removing gates to allow access to closed areas and resource damage are some of the violations reported by the BLM. Hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a form of "recreation" touted by its promoters as a family activity, but just the sort of thing expected from what Patterson calls a "Mad Max subculture of violence."

While eroded hillsides and decimated riparian areas are visible scars of off-roading, the tons of pollutants ATVs dump into the environment are no less harmful. Patterson would like to see agencies responsible for our public lands determine how much this "polluting for fun" is contributing to global warming.

Elected officials are also taking notice of the threat to public lands posed by off-road vehicles. Congressman Raúl Grijalva, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and chairman of its Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, will hold hearings during this congressional session to determine the impact of ATVs, including snowmobiles, on wildlife and the environment.

The congressman said the hearings will re-examine off-road usage, something he calls "very difficult to monitor and control." Patterson agrees with that assessment and would like to see stricter enforcement of the activity.

"We need stronger penalties. We need the same approach as (that taken with) drunk drivers. We should not allow more off-road usage than can be monitored and managed," Patterson said.

Off-roading, besides being a source of what PEER calls "wreck-reation," is an anachronistic vestige from a time of imagined unlimited resources and environmental myopia. It is also symptomatic of that peculiar American affliction: "entitlementitis."

The use of public lands comes with implied responsibility, the main one being to future generations. Ruined landscapes, demolished habitats and sensitive riparian areas turned to muck are the work of selfish, thoughtless individuals giving no consideration to the consequences of their adrenaline high. Who follows in their path of ruin or what they destroy are not even blips on their moral radar.

There is no inherent "right" to off-roading and no BLM mandate opening public lands to off-road vehicles. It's past time these road warriors get off their machines and get off the land. Congress and the BLM should see to it.

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