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10/10/2012 11:16:00 AM
Ranchers, others grapple with Off-Highway Vehicles impacts - Part 1 of a series
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 OHV accident outcomes - Part 4 of a series
• Avid OHV enthusiasts watch open areas disappear - Part 3 of Series
• OHV users and ranchers offer solutions to conflict Part 2 in a series

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Article comment by: t young

this photo at the orme ranch not only substantiates the destruction by motorized ohvs on public and private lands, but it points out why america is become a land of obese, softie, lardos, who think a camping xperience happens in a 40+ft rv with a generator. they even "hunt" on atvs instead of hiking or riding horse or mule. human locusts.

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012
Article comment by: Bryan bird

This is not an isolated incident. Here in northern New Mexico we have similar problem. The AP reported on this just last week. Excerpts from that article and the link to the full article are below.

NM residents vow to fight forest travel plan.

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012
Article comment by: Teresa Seamster

If you have never had ATV riders trespassing on your land or on land that you are responsible for, then you can't understand how helpless and outraged landowners feel when we see those tire tracks criss-crossing meadows, arroyos and hillsides. It makes you want to find the illegal riders - demand they pay for the reseeding and restoration - and insist they rip up their own land instead of yours. Our land, livestock and wildlife need protection and ATVers need to be licensed only when they've learned the rules of responsible behavior, safety and land stewardship.

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Article comment by: Keri Dixon

The long-lasting damage to our shared resources is just not ok. We need to respect the landscape and the critters who depend on it for survival. It's also an air and water quality issue. Wrecking wildlife habitat, our air, water, and soil quality... that's called "recreation"?

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Article comment by: Cyndi Tuell

Off-road vehicles have been driving quiet recreationists from public lands for decades and it is long overdue that our land managers get a handle on this issue. Not only do off-road vehicle users cause quiet users to flee our public lands, they cause long-lasting damage to cultural sites, rivers, and fish and wildlife habitat. There is a lot of information available at the Center for Biological Diversity's website

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