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10/10/2012 11:36:00 AM
Off Road: Part 1 of a series
Ranchers, others grapple with impacts of off-highway vehicles (OHVs)
Unauthorized OHVs and campers can decimate range land, like this area on the Orme Ranch.
Courtesy Photo
Unauthorized OHVs and campers can decimate range land, like this area on the Orme Ranch.
Courtesy Photo
OHVs: 5 to 30 times more damage than hikers
In a 2006 USGS report, scientific measurements are specific for five categories: soils and watersheds, vegetation, wildlife and habitats, water quality and air quality.

For example, scientists have documented 4-wheel drive vehicles and trailbikes apply five to 15 times the pressure to the soil as that of a hiking boot, Australian Ralf Buckley wrote in his 2004 book, Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism.

On level ground, the range was 1,000-2,300 gm/cm squared, and that number can be 10 times greater when OHVs are braking, accelerating or skidding.

"For example, 50 passes by a trailbike doubled slopewash, and 20 passes by a truck increased it five times," Buckley wrote. "An OHV causes 5-30 times as much damage to vegetation as hikers."


Cheryl Hartz
News Editor


(Editor's Note: Following is the first in a series of articles about the burgeoning popularity of OHVs, and the management of their impacts. A 2006 United States Geological Survey report on off-highway vehicles defined OHV as "any civilian off-highway vehicle." This series of articles concerns mainly ATV use, but does not exclude other vehicles. The series will deal with OHV usage from Chino Valley and Paulden to the Cordes Junction area.)

Longtime Orme Ranch managers Alan and Diana Kessler must deal with the massive damage unauthorized, unrestricted OHV use causes.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who cares," Alan Kessler said. "The trails don't heal over, and what is not often recognized is the 'staging areas,' where large areas of grass are trampled out by campers, trailers, fire pits and increased and concentrated traffic."

Other OHV users see a bare area and continue to use it, he noted. Some recreational OHV users, and sometimes hunters, cut fences, leave gates open and even injure livestock, leading to economic and safety concerns.

"There are a lot of nice people out there. But nice or not, the sheer numbers cause resource damage," Kessler said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who cares."

He isn't by a long shot.

The ecological impacts of vehicles driving off-road have been recognized since the 1920s, and some of the damage remains nearly 100 years later.

"Meinecke (1928) recorded damage to the roots of redwood trees," Australian Ralf Buckley said in his 2004 book, Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism.

That was decades before the advent of modern OHVs and the controversy their use causes.

Although OHVs benefit professions from ranching to border patrol, even limited use destroys fragile landscapes. That was apparent visually, but scientifically not well documented until the past couple of decades.

With an explosion of recreational use, the environmental impact of OHVs is a worldwide concern, with studies from Alaska to Australia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the rapid growth of vehicle recreation prompted scientific studies by federal and state land-managing agencies, according to a report by Michael Sampson, California associate state archeologist.

Buckley said researchers began to focus on particular ecosystems, including the U.S. Southwest.

What they found was 4-wheel drive vehicles and trailbikes applied five to 15 times the pressure to the soil as that of a hiking boot, and that can be 10 times greater when OHVs are braking, accelerating or skidding.

Immediate effects are to break up soil crusts and compress deeper layers. Ultimately, this increases erosion, destroys vegetation and introduces non-native plants.

Other researchers have found wildlife can suffer specific damage, such as hearing loss in kangaroo rats, desert iguanas and fringe-toed lizards. This interfered with the animals' ability to detect predators, especially rattlesnakes.

Spadefoot toads, mistaking OHV noise for thunder associated with the rainy season, emerged early from their burrows.

Even the results of humans traveling where they otherwise might not go - from litter to fire - are under the microscope.

"There are enormous differences in impacts between different OHV users. Driven carefully at the right speed, with the right tyres, in the right places, by a well-informed user, a 4WD vehicle is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way to enjoy many landscapes. Driven carelessly or with deliberate impacts, in fragile areas, by an ignorant or heedless user, OHVs can rapidly cause major and ecologically significant damage to soils, plants and animals," Buckley concluded.

USGS staff member Robert Webb, an adjunct associate professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, has made a career studying the environmental impact of OHVs. He published Environmental Effects of Off-Road Vehicles, Impacts and Management in Arid Regions (1983), documenting the results of OHV use in California's Mohave Desert.

"But until 2008, I did no research because I could find nothing scientifically interesting about it," Webb said.

Webb now has unpublished data on the subject.

What changed?

"What is scientifically interesting is the amount of time required to recover," he said. "Soil compaction associated with extreme use, such as you would find in an OHV pit area or heavily used road takes 100 to 125 years to recover fully IF there's no additional disturbance."

He said vegetation recovery, regardless of species composition, takes 80 years to recover in the Mohave Desert, but can take up to 1,000 years in fragile areas.

"No one's done any real research in Arizona," Webb said.

He now measures compaction from foot traffic and OHVs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Ajo, Ariz.

"What I'm trying to do is develop an objective method for testing soil and the vulnerability of soil compaction. There are no value judgments. It's to help land managers better manage our national resources," Webb said.

"We look at it as anything from a border patrol agent driving around trying to catch drug smugglers to recreational use."

His conclusion: environmental damage occurs rapidly but heals slowly.

"The main thing is, the greatest changes occur within the first few passes," he said. "What could be done by an OHV in a few hours can take decades to recover."

Sheer numbers of OHVs translates to rapid destruction of the environment.

OHV numbers in the U.S. tripled during the decade from 1993-2003. The inter-mountain west, including Arizona, has the greatest participation rates, according to USGS research ecologist Michael Duniway.

Steve Carmickle, an Arizona Game & Fish volunteer and past president of the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, said statewide it's a $3.5 to $4 billion industry, with about 400,000 OHVs of all types.

"Dealers say it's the largest growth market in Arizona," Carmickle recently told ranchers during the annual Cattleman's Association Convention in Prescott.

Longtime Queen Creek rancher Craig Shelley is leading an effort to revamp OHV use.

"I'm just trying to get people aware and get the facts out," Shelley said. "There is a lot of (scientific) information out there and none of it is good for the OHV user."

Next week: social and economic impacts, viewpoints and possible solutions from OHV enthusiasts, ranchers and government land managers.



Related Stories:
• Helmets, handling make a difference in off road vehicle accident outcomes
• OHV enthusiasts watch open areas disappear
• OHV users and ranchers offer solutions to conflicts both face


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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Article comment by: Donna Stevens

If ATVs would stay on established roads, like other vehicles do, most conservationists would not have a problem with them. The damage is done when they drive off-road in areas that previously did not experience the noise, dust and direct damage associated with ATVs.

All Americans pay for public lands through our taxes, and all Americans own our public lands. Everyone has the right to use the forest no one has the right to abuse it.

Thank you, Ms. Hartz, for a balanced article.


Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Article comment by: Good Steward

The right to use doesn't mean the right to abuse and destroy.

Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Article comment by: Dave A

If its public property each and every tax paying American has the undeniable right to its use.


Posted: Monday, October 15, 2012
Article comment by: OHV Facts

"The trails we ride and boots walk on are paid for by ONLY the ATV users."

That's not true. Motorized trails are partially funded by the tax on gasoline. So, people who never venture off the paved track actually fund the trails all OHVs use, not just ATVs.


Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012
Article comment by: OHV users unite

OHV Users need to unite and fight this madness, they are closing more trails every day while I pay for 5 OHV tags yearly. The only thing they have done with the OHV tags is up the patrol and enforce new closures.

For those that don't know , they have closed smiley rock trail , which is part of a nationwide trail system "the great western trail" this has been open and in use for many years.

Also as for the 1000 years to heal , I had a dirt bike track in my backyard 5 years ago, as of now you can not tell the difference between the surrounding areas and where my track was, I invite Mr. Webb to come take a look himself.

one last point , APS has caused more damage to Mingus mountain than 100 years of OHV use could ever do.


Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Article comment by: Cheryl Hartz

OHV users aren't villains and we won't portray them as such. Many people
use OHVs productively. The first article only seems one-sided because it is
strictly about environmental impact of OHV use. The visual damage caused by OHV presence is indisputable, even if people question scientists' data. And
scientific data takes into consideration more than sheer weight of an
object. The modus operandi of motorized vehicles and livestock is decidedly different. An ATV traveling off-road at 45 mph tears up more ground and vegetation and disturbs more wildlife than cattle repeatedly following single file, as is their wont, or any number of hikers.
Also, the article is not about trail maintenance but more about
environmental impact in areas that aren't marked trails and roads. OHV fees are explored in a future article, as are comments from OHV recreational users themselves.


Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Article comment by: John Jeter

Your article repeatedly quotes the difference between boots and my quads tires and how they impact nature. Just to clarify all quad users pay OHV tag fees which not one pair of boots ever pays. The trails we ride and boots walk on are paid for by ONLY the ATV users. So we may do some damage we also pay to have them maintained. While others use the resources but yet never contribute and leave a nice trail of granola bar wrappers. I recommend contacting the Arizona OHV lobby group to hear our side and not the current biased opinion you describe. Editor's Note: Please follow the series as we will endeavor to cover all sides of this issue. thanks for commenting.

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Article comment by: rich taylor

On the OHV article
I donot have an ATV and do not have a beef with ranchers. But this is one sided
1. With respect to the comments on leaving gates open, cut through fences, etc - All you needed to do was pick up a paper in the 1960's and heard the same comments. - Not new. But was not mentioned is how much of "OUR" forest lands he is using for real cheap. SO lets make sure he is talking his private land. If it public land then he should ensure his comments are correct
2. A cow weights 1400 - 1600 lbs, a horse about 1000 lbs. An ATV - 700 lbs. The damage from the hoofs of cattle and horses is far more damaging and establish long term ruts also.
3. From I looked up - do I get the sense he is pushing an eco template . So his 1000 years numbers just do not make sense - But asked him for explict data to support his acusations
4. We should go in a n limit a lot of jeep trails and ATV trails - but things like tank traps do little with ATV's




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