OHVs and our forests

Crack down on illegal use now — or lose access later

Our national forests provide some of the world’s greatest recreational opportunities, such as the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests. One of the fastest growing recreational pursuits on federal lands in the West is off-highway vehicle (OHV) riding.

For many responsible users, this is a fun and appropriate way to enjoy our federal lands. But the growing number of users riding illegally are presenting some problems we need to solve to preserve recreational access for future generations.

As chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 2001 to 2007, I identified unmanaged recreation as one of the top four threats to our nation’s forests. The rapid growth in OHV riding is having a large impact on the land, and reckless riders are causing tension with other forest users.

In the eight years since we identified the Four Threats, the Forest Service has accomplished a lot. In 2005, a new travel management rule was instituted to govern the use of motorized vehicles. We developed each plan through a collaborative process that engaged local stakeholders. Our goal was to balance the needs of today’s motorized users with protection of America’s forests for future generations to enjoy. Nearly 75 percent of those local plans have been finalized and the responsible majority of OHV users are enjoying the nearly 56,000 miles of trails open to motorized access. That’s about equal to driving up and down the California coastline 16 times.

The travel management plan has been a good start. Despite all this work, there are some riders with a “go anywhere” attitude who are willfully ignoring the travel plans and continuing to break the rules. These reckless riders stray from designated trails, cause significant environmental damage and disturb other forest users. A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found conflicts between OHV and nonmotorized users reported by Forest Service field units. Altogether, it diminishes the experience of our national forests for motorized and nonmotorized users.

Unfortunately, the problem won’t go away on its own. The longer we wait, the worse it will get, and the more difficult the problem becomes to manage. The logical next step to travel plan management is to crack down on the growing minority of reckless motorized users through tougher law enforcement measures.

In a difficult budget climate, this can be a challenge. Adding to that challenge is that the Forest Service is responsible for managing 193 million acres of national forests, including more than 14 million acres in Colorado. Many of these locations can be remote and difficult for law enforcement to reach to catch fast-moving, nimble OHVs.

However, groups such as Responsible Trails America have identified solutions that will deter illegal riding, help law enforcement catch illegal riders and preserve recreational opportunities.

The first solution is for Congress to implement a standard visible identification system for OHVs on public lands. These IDs should be highly visible, such as a plate or large decal. Illegal riders enjoy a veil of anonymity because they wear helmets and Colorado’s current credit card-sized IDs are too small to be seen on fast-moving, dirt-covered vehicles. Removing that anonymity means riders will be less willing to risk straying from designated trails. And, officers would no longer be endangered chasing after illegal riders.

Another solution to deter illegal riding is to impose stricter fines. Tougher minimum fines would make riders think twice before leaving marked trails. And a consistent penalty structure would make it easier for the many responsible rider groups across the country to inform their members about the consequences of illegal activity on federal lands.

Escalating penalties for repeat offenders would provide another deterrent. In some areas, this concept is already at work. For example, Forest Service fines in other Western states such as Arizona and New Mexico are $150 for the first offense, $300 for the second offense and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses. Again, making this uniform across federal lands would help to keep public land users better informed.

I believe these solutions would create a more positive outdoor recreational experience for both motorized and nonmotorized visitors in Colorado and across the region. And it would protect our national forests and other public lands for future generations. Enacting proactive solutions like these today will prevent us from having to take more drastic actions tomorrow – such as limiting access to federal lands. That’s not what our national forests are about, and no one wants to see that happen.

Dale Bosworth had a 41-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and served as its chief from 2001 to 2007.