Off Road Vehicle Use

Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) are motorized machines designed to travel over any type of terrain and include all terrain vehicles (ATVs), dirt bikes, dune buggies, snowmobiles and swamp buggies. The use of these machines in the backcountry has increased ten-fold in the past twenty years. This increased use and subsequent abuse has reached such epidemic proportions that ORV’s have been listed as one of the top four threats, right alongside wildfire, to our National Forests, including Inventoried Roadless Areas.

ORV use causes a tremendous amount of ecological damage throughout the backcountry and wildlands of America. Using ORVs in streams and valuable riparian areas increases sedimentation that damages fisheries, important food and shelter for wildlife, drinking water supplies and precious wetlands. Unauthorized cross-country travel creates an ugly web of trails and roads (troads) throughout the public commons that adversely effects wildlife and habitat by fragmenting the landscape and contributing to the spread of noxious weeds and non-native plants, which is another top threats to our National Forests. As an example, a recent Montana study showed that one ORV could spread 2,000 Knapweed seeds over a ten-mile trip. Knapweed is a non-native invasive species that takes over habitat, driving out native plants that wildlife need.

Although ORV users represent just 10% of overall forest users, they create the greatest conflict with other non-motorized user groups who appreciate the peace and solitude the outdoor experience can provide. Backpackers, hikers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, equestrians, hunters and anglers are increasingly frustrated with the escalating use and attendant natural resource damage caused by ORV use on public lands. The Idaho Fish and Game department conducted surveys that indicated 86% of rifle elk hunters believe that ORV use detracts from their hunting experiences.

© Larry Campbel
Summer 2004 ORV damage, Brenan Gulch. Bitterroot National Forest, Montana.

In many places off road vehicle abuse is taking the “wild” out of hunting. In the past, hunting was a respected, often referential activity built on endurance, skill and outdoor experience. Today, increasing numbers of hunters and anglers use ORVs in the backcountry. They can travel farther and faster than ever before. Some hunters never leave their vehicles during a hunt, driving right up to the downed animal. For a majority of the hunters who do not own ORVs and many within the non-hunting community, this over reliance upon vehicles while hunting damages the fair chase ethic and perception of the hunter. This escalating use of ORVs while hunting and angling adds fuel to the fire of anti-hunting and animal rights groups, who are intent on banning hunting

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a recent study titled the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, concluded that 64.5% of Americans are overweight with 30.5% of those being obese. Obesity is well on the way to becoming our nation’s number one killer, surpassing tobacco use. For hunters and anglers, lack of exercise, helped in part by over reliance on ORVs, contributes to this dangerous national trend. Riding an ORV requires little physical endurance or calorie expenditure. Hunters and anglers can set an example for a return to traditional and healthy outdoor exercise.

Two Executive Orders have been signed that govern ORV use on federal lands. Republican President Richard Nixon signed E.O. 11644 in 1972 and Democratic President Jimmy Carter signed E.O. 11989 in 1977. These two orders mandate ORV use on federal lands must be managed to "protect the resources of those lands, to promote the safety of all users of those lands and to minimize conflicts among the various users of those lands." Federal land managers are required to minimize wildlife harassment, damage to habitat and conflicts between ORV use and other users when designated routes are available and established. Land managers are also required to annually monitor ORV use and their impacts. If it is determined that ORV use is having a detrimental effect, the agencies are required to immediately close those trails or roads. Unfortunately, these Executive Orders have not been enforced and are now ignored by the public land management agencies.

  1. Fully implement Executive Orders 11644 and 11989.

  2. Prohibit off trail, cross-country use and designate all ORV trails and roads (troads) closed unless they are signed open.

  3. Only allow ORV route designation, building and upgrading after careful analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act shows that use of such route will not cause ecological damage.

  4. Prohibit ORV use on designated routes if monitoring and enforcement funding is not available.

  5. Prohibit ORV use in proposed wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas. This would ensure the wild character of these areas and would not compromise their eventual introduction into the National Wilderness system.

  6. Prohibit ORV use in National Parks and Wildlife Refuges where appropriate.

  7. Promote an ethic that requires fair chase, physical exertion, endurance and an appreciation for the solitude of the natural world.

Natural Trails and Water Coalition:

About Caitlin Thompson