Off Road Vehicles Create Conflict in California

By Cat Lazaroff

DAVIS, California, March 9, 2001 (ENS) - Many public lands in California, ranging from national forests to wilderness areas, are becoming too damaged - and in some cases too dangerous - for the public to enjoy, finds a first of its kind report. The study by the California Wilderness Coalition blames dirt bikes and other off road vehicles for damaging and despoiling the state's public lands.


An ORV race in the Algodones Dunes, California's premiere ORV area (Photo by Jim Rose. All photos courtesy California Wilderness Coalition)
Based on an exhaustive examination of state and federal records, the 68 page study by the Davis based California Wilderness Coalition contains numerous on the ground case studies of areas throughout California that have been spoiled by off road vehicles (ORVs).

"It was shocking to unearth the widespread, off road vehicle damage to our deserts and forests," said Teri Shore, report author. "With so few wild places left to find peace and quiet, and so many animals disappearing from our landscape, it's time to reign in the motorized takeover of Californian's favorite places."

The report concludes that California's public resources, including soil, watersheds, habitat and water quality, are being severely degraded by poorly managed off road vehicle use. In addition, the outdoor experiences of numerous hikers, campers, equestrians and skiers are being ruined by conflicts with dirt bikes, snowmobiles and other ORVs, the report charges.

California contains a diverse range of natural habitats, ranging from a mountains to forests, rocky shorelines to desert lands. The Golden State is also among the most traveled regions of the U.S.


Crushed desert tortoise in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area in the Mojave desert (Photo by Kristine Berry)
Each year, millions of tourists visit California to enjoy its scenic treasures. But many find it impossible to escape the din of motors, either on roads or off.

"No corner of the state has been spared the destruction of natural places by out of control off road vehicle use," said author Shore. "It's tragic how much permanent damage has been done to our lands by unmanaged off road use."


Motorized off road vehicles are made to be ridden in the backcountry. But their tracks are visible for generations, and their impacts often permanent.


Decades of unchecked off road vehicle use have led to severe erosion at Dove Springs (Photo by Jim Rose)
Hundreds of thousands of these vehicles travel California's backcountry each year. When irresponsibly used, or improperly managed, they cause damage to sensitive soils, degrade critical wildlife habitat, trespass onto private property and closed areas, and shatter the quiet.

In the Jawbone and Dove Springs open riding areas, 20 miles north of the town of Mojave, decades of overuse have cleared topsoil from some areas, leaving behind bare bedrock. All but the largest shrubs have been stripped from more than 1,000 acres, and another 500 have been completely denuded.

The use is so heavy that, according to one report, after a rainfall, "the water formed a thick slurry of the loose soil, which flowed out over the canyon floor much like a lava flow, burying plants and trapping burrowing animals." Another study found that some upper slopes lost as much as one foot of surface soil over 13 years due to motorcycle use.

Wildlife has largely disappeared as well. Off road vehicles race across the land, crushing desert tortoises and their burrows, and impacting the kangaroo rat and pocket mouse populations as well.


At the Jawbone Canyon riding area, rain brings a slurry of mud off steep slopes denuded of vegetation, burying plants and animals below (Photo by Howard Wilshire)
In the Algodones Dunes of southeast California, considered California's off roading mecca, out of control ORV use has turned dangerous. Hundreds of thousands of off roaders visit the Algodones Dunes each year, creating a land management and public safety fiasco.

On crowded holiday weekends, lawlessness escalates to the point where near riot conditions prevail.

The dunes have become unsafe for family recreation activity due to the use of drugs and alcohol, and the problems of lawlessness that occur with such use, according to a Bureau of Land Management report. BLM rangers have been threatened and deliberately run over.

"The problem has advanced to the stage that the normal, law abiding citizens are fearful of using the area," said a recent BLM report.


Off road vehicle users regularly disregard the law and trespass into wilderness and other closed areas, as well as onto private property, the study found. Irresponsible off road vehicle use poses special problems for law enforcement, and irresponsible riders are extremely difficult to catch.


ORV rules are hard to enforce. Many riders ignore closures, producing scenes like this one in the North Algodones Wilderness Area (Photo by Jim Rose)
The case studies featured in the report describe damage to California's natural areas, but also detail how California residents, visitors and landowners are literally being run out by off road vehicles.

"The very places where California residents and visitors go to enjoy the peace and quite of the great outdoors are the same places where the silence is shattered by noisy dirt bikes and aggressive all terrain vehicles," said California Wilderness Coalition executive director Paul Spitler.

In the Lake Tahoe Basin, for example, illegal off road riding is rampant, the Coalition found.

In recent years, land managers in the basin have reported increased complaints about riding close to or inside residential areas, trespass into closed areas and wilderness, destruction of wet meadows and other highly sensitive areas, and new trails being cut into rehabilitated trails and roads.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, off road vehicle users have created new, unauthorized routes, creating erosion and sedimentation that may further diminish the clarity of California's most famous lake.

At the Knoxville Recreation Area, near Clear Lake, federal officials have abandoned their management and law enforcement responsibilities, opening the door to widespread abuse and lawlessness.


Erosion, like this found at the Knoxville Recreation Area, is one of the major problems that ORVs can leave behind (Photo by Susan Harrison)
For more than 15 years, the remote chaparral hillsides and serpentine barrens of Knoxville Recreation Area have been subjected to mostly unregulated motorcycle riding, four wheeling and random target shooting.

Appliances, TVs, computers and other large items have been found blown up and riddled with bullet holes. Long time landowner Jim Erasmy warns his wife and women in general not to hike the area alone.

"Families come to the Knoxville area thinking that they have a safe place for their children to learn to ride. Instead they've entered an area with no rules, no road signs, and no real BLM presence," said Erasmy. "The risk of getting shot while riding off road vehicles, hiking, horseback riding ... is a real and ever present danger."

Sometimes, ORV use may have disastrous effects. The Willow Fire, which burned 63,000 acres in and around San Bernardino National Forest and destroyed several homes in 1999, "was strongly suspected to be from OHV riders leaving an unattended campfire," according to a government report.


Each winter, the Reds Meadow area of the eastern Sierra Nevada becomes a popular snowmobile playground. Numerous snowmobilers ignore the rules and cross into campgrounds, wilderness areas and even Devil's Postpile National Monument. In most cases, the offenders are never cited or even confronted by law enforcement officers.

Dozens of other violations have been reported to the Inyo National Forest, including willful trespass into wilderness, Devil's Postpile, and closed campgrounds; destruction of property; damage to vegetation; and physical threats to area residents.

Tops of trees were snapped off. Campgrounds, signs and private property were routinely wrecked by rogue riders. Sometimes the polluting machines crashed and overturned into creeks and streams, spilling gas and oil into waterways.


Hope Valley, a popular snowmobiling area, is located just south of the Lake Tahoe Basin (Photo by Joshua Boldt)
Bob Sollima, caretaker at Reds Meadow, describes the scene he witnesses in winter.

"It seems that all the snowmobile pilots had 'moto-jump mania,' getting air off anything including buildings and vehicles. In one winter, I tallied damages to fences, hitch rails, a stone barbecue, a roof, my truck, windshield, two tree squirrels, a pine marten, and a fire hydrant [that] was sheared off," Sollima said.

"Some of the snowmobile abuses I've seen in the Reds Meadow Valley over the years, in times of low snowpack, are environmental damage to treetops, meadows, trails, creeks, lakes and the river," Sollima continued. "I've seen two snowmobiles stuck in the San Joaquin River, two submerged in Sotcher Lake and three overturned in creeks, spilling gas and oil into the water."


A recent ORV policy issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is "absolutely toothless," doing little to correct existing problems, charges Coalition executive director Spitler.


Desert areas like these hills adjacent to El Mirage Dry Lake are particularly popular with off roaders (Photo by Howard Wilshire)
"We have done what the federal land management agencies have long failed to do: document the severe and widespread environmental impacts of unmanaged off road vehicle use," said Spitler. "Just as you would not allow a dirt bike to tear up your front yard, we should not allow dirt bikes and other off road vehicles to destroy California's unique national forests and other public lands."

The Coalition's report presents a 15 point plan for creating a more balanced and fair off road vehicle policy in California. This plan aims to:

The plan proposes federal reforms, state legislative reforms and state administrative reforms aimed at determining appropriate ORV use and mapping approved areas, enforcing existing rules, and restoring damaged areas.

California's state government should increase state funding for repairing ORV damage and preventing future damage, the report suggests. Currently, the state provides millions of dollars each year to support the acquisition, development and operations of ORV facilities and areas on federally managed lands, through its ORV grants program.


The Coalition hopes that off roaders, like these jeep drivers on the Fordyce Trail in Tahoe National Forest, can coexist with others who visit public lands (Photo by Jim Rose)
But some of the responsibility for paying for ORV damages should fall on the users themselves, the Coalition proposes. Registration fees for ORVs should be linked to emissions levels, the report argues.

Higher emission vehicles - usually older models with less efficient engines - should be charged higher fees. The group says that this would create a positive incentive to reduce emissions from ORVs.

"This report documents for the first time how people and places across the state of California are suffering from out of control off road vehicle damage," said author Shore. "The deserts and forests that we all love and want to enjoy are being scarred forever and may never recover from decades of irresponsible off road vehicle use."

The report and supporting materials are available online at: