While past environmental abuses of American public lands have been blamed primarily on logging, mining, and energy development, motorized recreation is turning out to be the next great threat to ecosystems across America.
Off-road vehicles (ORVs) cause an extraordinary amount of habitat degradation and pollution, often in the most fragile of habitats. To protect wild places WildEarth Guardians seeks to stop off-road vehicle abuse by reshaping national policy and engaging in on-the-ground efforts in key wild places to show how this damage can be prevented. We advocate for specific policy changes to reduce abuse and eliminate the use of off-road vehicles within roadless and other ecologically sensitive areas.
Off-road vehicles -- dirt bikes, ATVs, side-by-sides (or UTVs) dune buggies, snowmobiles, jet skis, rock crawlers and new multi-purpose vehicles -- are one of the major threats to our wildlands.
Off-road vehicle use on most public lands is poorly managed, covering the landscape with a web of illegal motorized paths and roads. The vehicles can:
- Cause severe damage to resources and wildlife habitat including
- Soil displacement and compaction, erosion and stream sedimentation
- Deposition of engine chemicals and fuel directly into the environment
- Spread of non-native weeds into formerly pristine habitat
- Destruction of native vegetation, including threatened and/or endangered vegetation
- Ruin the quiet natural experience for non-motorized visitors
- Access and cause long-lasting damage in the most fragile landscapes, including formerly inaccessible places like tundra, alpine areas and wetlands
ORV damage near Blanding, Utah.
Inadequate management plans, irresponsible use and insufficient enforcement have resulted in hundreds of thousands of miles of unauthorized "renegade routes" across the lands owned by all Americans. Transportation planners, biologists, and law enforcement officers on public lands now recognize they are vastly outnumbered and badly under-funded to properly manage out of control recreational use. After years of turning a blind eye, public officials are trying to catch up with the growth in off-road vehicle use, the damage they leave behind, and the conflicts they create with other forest uses as well as private landowners.
ORV damage near Moab, Utah.
Technological advances have given ORVs more power and control, allowing even beginners to access remote wildlands. These advances have increased the amount of motorized activity in wildlife habitat and a variety of sensitive ecosystems. The result is an increase in impacts on the landscape and increased conflicts between off-roaders and non-motorized public lands visitors. The ecological and physical impacts of their use have been well documented in thousands of scientific articles and several literature reviews.
Many of the resources we’ve developed are widely applicable in other situations, providing advocacy tools, information and other resources for other grassroots conservationists to build on our successes.
- Summary of ORV literature reviews This is a brief annotated list of off-road vehicle review articles in published journals through 2011.
- Bibliographic Database: This database can be searched, using key words, to identify articles on specific types of off-road vehicle impacts. The database contains over 20,000 citations, from peer-reviewed published literature and from grey literature, regarding a very broad array of ecological impacts of roads and off-road vehicles.
- Bibliography Notes: Click here to search our resources database for literature reviews about the ecological effects of off-road vehicles. We have nearly 50 short, fully-cited, easy to read reviews on a broad scope of off-road vehicle impacts – covering topics as broad-ranging as the spread of noxious weeds, impacts to individual species like shore-birds, air quality problems, etc. If you click on “biblio notes” in the “filter” section, it will pull up all of our quarterly literature reviews.
- “Off-road vehicle best management practices for forestlands: A review of scientific literature and guidance for managers.” WildEarth Guardians Staff Scientist Adam Switalski, and Allison Jones co-authored this paper in the Journal of Conservation Planning. This article reviews the current research on ORVs and provides a set of Best Management Practices for planning and implementing ORV routes. This will help conservation-minded land managers address the environmental concerns associated with ORV management on forestlands.. The article is a condensed version of a longer independently published report (Wildlands CPR (now WildEarth Guardians) and Wild Utah Project) on Best Management Practices (link to page on WCPR website
- "Six Strategies for Success: Effective enforcement of off-road vehicle use on public lands" This report contains an explanation of enforcement challenges, and dozens of tactics and examples of successful off-road vehicle enforcement, even on limited budgets, from around the country.
- Field Notes: We have several different types of off-road vehicle field monitoring forms available to help interested citizens or activists document off-road vehicle impacts. Please contact our office if you are interested in this type of information.
- Legal and Policy Analysis: From our “resources database” you can conduct choose the filters for ORVs and for policy or other to find a host of articles about different federal policies that regulate off-road vehicles, and to find analyses of key off-road vehicle litigation over time.
WildEarth Guardians (as Wildlands CPR) co-led a westwide campaign to engage on Forest Service Travel Planning, a process designed to end rampant and unrestricted cross-country travel by off-road vehicles. That campaign has been wildly successful, resulting in at least 50 million acres formerly open to cross-country travel now closed, with ORVs off-road vehicles now allowed instead only on designated routes in those areas!
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, MT
In May 2015, a three judge appeals court panel sided unanimously with WildEarth Guardians and partners Friends of the Bitterroot and Montanans for Quiet Recreation in our battle to secure stronger protections for winter wildlife including moose, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverine and lynx. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest designated over 60% of the forest to snowmobiles but our lawsuit reversed the decision. Tucked into the southwestern corner of the state, the national forest forms a critical piece of the “spine of the Continent” wild landscape where winter wildlife still thrives. This is the first ever appeals court victory on the Forest Service’s requirement to minimize off road vehicle impacts to wildlife.
This is the first circuit court victory on the Forest service’s minimization criteria required in the Travel Management Rule, designed to actually minimize resource damage and conflicts with non-motorized recreation. In addition to the minimization criteria violation, the Ninth Circuit held that the agency violated the law by failing to provide in the environmental analysis adequate information on the impacts of snowmobiles on big game wildlife and habitat, including wolverine, moose, deer, and elk.
Off-road vehicles (ORVs) - dirt bikes, ATVs, dune buggies, snowmobiles, jet skis, etc. - pose one of the fastest growing threats to our public lands. Their use is poorly managed, splintering the landscape into a mess of motorized routes.
Because of rapidly improving technology, off-road vehicles can travel many places that were formerly too difficult to access. A few passes by off-road vehicles in the same place creates unauthorized, renegade routes.
The Forest Service alone has more than 60,000 miles of such renegade routes. These routes cause even greater resource damage than regular routes, because they cut through pristine lands and are not built to Forest Service specifications.
Off-road vehicles compact and erode soil, spread noxious weeds, pollute the air and water, disrupt wildlife and directly damage trees, shrubs and other plants.
Erosion caused by off-road vehicles can be disastrous, creating massive ruts as seen in this picture from the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky.
Dirty wetlands make for dirty drinking water, and 70% of our nation's drinking water traces its source to National Forest lands. Many towns have had to spend millions of dollars to deal with sediment-laden water caused from roads and off-road vehicles.place creates unauthorized, renegade routes.
Off-road vehicles also compact the soils they drive on. Compaction makes it difficult for water to seep into the soil, increasing erosion next to a route. Soil compaction can also make plant survival and revegetation virtually impossible.
Off-road vehicle damage vegetation and create large patches of barren lands, which are susceptible to erosion, flooding, landslides, and noxious weeds.
Toadflax, knapweed, leafy spurge, and many other noxious weeds are found along roads and trails. Weed seeds get stuck on off-road vehicles and then released into the churned-up soil, which provides perfect conditions for weeds to thrive.
Off-road vehicles create conflicts between users of our public lands. Motorized vehicles push hikers off trails and alter the outdoor experience for enjoyers of quiet and wild places.
The two-stroke engines commonly used in jet skis, motorcycles, and snowmobiles burn so inefficiently that up to 30% of their fuel/oil mixture flows unburned from the engines directly into our soil and water.
Perhaps the most severe example of off-road vehicle-induced air pollution happened during past winters at the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park where employees had to wear gas masks because of the snowmobile exhaust.
Off-road vehicles significantly impact wildlife by lowering life-expectancy, decreasing viable habitat, disturbing the animals, and displacing them from important breeding, calving, and feeding grounds.
On most of our public lands government agencies do not have the manpower or incentives to properly enforce off-road vehicles. Because of lack of enforcement, renegate routes caused by illegal off-road vehicle use will continue to exist.
ORVs must be restricted to legally designated routes (that are specifically posted as open for use) where properly funded enforcement exists. ORV use should also be eliminated in roadless and other ecologically sensitive areas.
WildEarth Guardians seeks to limit off-road vehicle use by shaping national policy and empowering grassroots conservationists with knowledge and tools combat this threat to our public lands.