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Hell on Wheels
Page 3

In small numbers, factory-made ORVs began to appear on public land in the 1950s and 1960s. The very first was the dirt bike, followed by the snowmobile and dune buggy. The ATV and Jet Ski came along roughly a decade later. Since they were brand-new, previously undreamed-of creations, there were no specific rules in place to govern their use. Land managers tended to regulate them only casually, typically closing their most environmentally sensitive areas to them but giving tacit approval to use them most anywhere else within a state park or national forest, providing they stayed on existing vehicular routes. And for the most part, that worked. "Forty years ago, there were only a handful of off-highway vehicles, and they were these clumsy 17-horsepower things that constantly broke down and couldn't handle deep snow or rough terrain," says Mike Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. "If we told them not to wander off roads or harass wildlife they didn't, because they couldn't. And it was with that perception that the National Park Service naively permitted snowmobiles in Yellowstone, beginning in 1963."

But during roughly the last dozen years the design and engineering of all off-road vehicles have improved dramatically. They've evolved into high-power machines with superb traction, suspension, and cushioning features that make them vastly easier to handle and ride than their predecessors. The ATV metamorphosed from a tippy and dangerous three-wheeler in the 1970s to a more stable four-wheeler, or "quad," by the 1990s. The early snowmobile, which sank out of sight if it ventured off pre-packed trails, transformed into a 70-horsepower machine that skims across the deepest powder at 90 mph.

Photo of riders on an ATV trailDue to the design improvements, along with the prosperity of the 1990s, annual sales of off-road vehicles quadrupled from 350,000 machines in 1990 to 1.4 million by 2000, with most of the increase coming from sales of all-terrain vehicles. The machines are not inexpensive: An ATV starts at around $5,000; a dirt bike, $3,000; a Jet Ski, $7,000; and a snowmobile even more. But a dimension of the machines' popularity, manufacturers say, is their new appeal to distinctly middle-class Americans with family incomes in the neighborhood of $70,000.

Operating with casual, 40-year-old ORV policies or, in some cases, operating with no policy at all, state and federal land managers were caught flatfooted. "At the BLM we were overwhelmed not only with the abilities of the new vehicles but also with their demographics," says Jim Keeler, national off-highway vehicle coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management. "I was an early dirt biker myself. But I had no idea -- no one did -- that we'd see so many people riding these machines today."

Just as their manufacturers claim, today's off-road vehicles can conquer almost any natural landscape, from swamp to stream to mountain slope. "Fifteen years ago, American wildlife had long periods of quiet isolation from human beings because distance, weather, and terrain made it difficult for most of us to reach them," says Gayle Joslin, wildlife biologist for Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and co-coordinator of a 1999 study, "The Effects of Recreation on Rocky Mountain Wildlife." "But that's all changed. Now, there's no season of the year wildlife isn't under persistent stress from riders on machines. When a cross-country skier goes into the forest he travels only five or six miles before he gets pooped and turns around," Joslin adds. "Wildlife can easily evade him because he's moving slowly. But snowmobilers roar along at 20 or 30 miles an hour, and their vehicles never get tired. Fifteen minutes from the highway, they're deep enough in the forest to panic a wintering herd of elk and take a couple of noisy turns around them to get a closer look. A half hour later they're high up on a ridge, terrifying a herd of mountain sheep or a wolverine giving birth to her kits. When they leave they take a different route down the slope to where their truck is parked and panic a whole different set of animals."

While much of the damage caused by today's ORVs is innocent or inadvertent, most land managers have no doubt that aggressive lawbreaking is increasing, due to the new potency of the machines. "It's like putting a Corvette in somebody's hands, then expecting him to obey a 35-mph speed limit," says John Donahue, former superintendent of Florida's 720,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve.

The tenor of rider behavior, land managers agree, is set by ORV advertisements that show the vehicles slashing through pristine surroundings: "See those blurred colors streaming by you," says a personal watercraft advertisement. "That's called scenery. Scenery's for saps."

But for the vast majority of Americans who visit the outdoors under their own steam, and who do want scenery, along with a quiet and unscarred landscape, the impact of the new off-road vehicles is profound. On shared trails and waterways, fast-moving ORVs aggressively force hikers, canoeists, and cross-country skiers aside. The ruts the machines make on the land persist anywhere from a month to a decade after the vehicles have departed. The sounds of their engines can be heard up to two miles away in forested landscape, up to six miles away on water or in open desert. Once ORVs arrive in formerly wild or natural places such as the Lost Lake area of Alaska's Chugach National Forest or Utah's Lockhart Basin, they invariably drive out hikers like Larry Steinbrink, along with campers, canoeists, anglers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor visitors whose recreation requires a setting that is natural and more or less undisturbed.

Even in heavily protected and patrolled Yellowstone National Park, nonmotorized winter visitors have long been repulsed by the thousands of snowmobiles that stream through the park. Visitors complain mostly of the machines' heavy exhaust fumes (in a two-stroke engine, 25 percent of the fuel is discharged, unburned, into the atmosphere) and of what's come to be known as "buffalo Ping-Pong" -- snowmobilers chasing groups of frightened bison back and forth on snow-packed park roads. (In the last days of the Clinton administration, snowmobile use in Yellowstone was ordered to be phased out by the winter of 2004. It was restored by the Bush administration. Several lawsuits and legal reversals later, the situation is still in flux.)

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Photo: Ted Wood

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council