Rise in off-road vehicle use creating conflicts

The chairman of a Senate panel said federal officials need to do a better job managing the use of off-road vehicles on public lands.  

“The challenges of managing off-road use ... have grown dramatically in recent years, and it appears questionable to me whether the [Bureau of Land Management] and Forest Service are able to properly manage this use,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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The rising popularity of off-road vehicles has continued to raise conflicts between off-road vehicle users and other public-land users and environmentalists.

Thursday’s hearing was the first time a Senate panel held a hearing specifically on off-road vehicle usage.

Off-road vehicle use was first regulated in 1972 by an executive order issued by President Richard Nixon, according to the National Forest Service.

At that time, an estimated 5 million Americans used off-road vehicles. That figure has jumped to 44.4 million Americans over the three decades since, according to a survey conducted from 2005 to 2007.

The increased use of recreational vehicles has been a boon to many local communities, generating hundreds of millions of tourism and economic development dollars.

National forests and grasslands receive approximately 192 million visitors each year, officials said.

The visitors make “a significant contribution to the economy of many rural areas,” said Joel Holtrop, the deputy chief of the National Forest System, a division of the Forest Service.

The economic importance of off-road vehicle users leaves some senators from Western areas, where off-roading is especially popular, wary of additional government intervention.

“I have a thriving recreational industry — don’t destroy it with regulation!” implored Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

But Henri Bisson, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, said that the additional off-road traffic has created a number of problems.

“[The] western regions receiving the most [off-road vehicle] traffic cannot sustain such use,” Bisson said.

“The first motor vehicle driving across a particular meadow may not harm the land, but by the time 50 motor vehicles have crossed the same path, a user-created trail will likely be left behind that causes lasting environmental impacts on soil, water quality and wildlife habitat,” Holtrop said.

One of the biggest problems created by the increase in off-road vehicle use is the amount of dust kicked up under the tires.

“The dust issue is going to become a major, major issue,” said Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist at the Interior Department.

“We’re seeing millions of pounds of dust coming off the roads.”

Panelists said only a small majority of people who use off-road vehicles break existing rules. But witnesses complained it was tough to enforce the rules.

Frank Adams, executive director of the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association, said one of the largest problems he and his colleagues face is that motorcycles and recreational vehicles are often unlicensed.  Nevada, for example, does not require off-road vehicles to be licensed. Adams said that he believes there should be standardized federal licensing rules.

But plating every motorcycle would come at the cost of anonymity, which is prized by motorcyclists and off-road vehicle users.

Witnesses also called for additional financial resources dedicated for managing federal land-use issues.