Senate Committee Holds Hearing on OHV Use

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on OHV Use

During a June 5 hearing, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee reviewed the implications of increasing numbers of off-highway vehicle (OHV) users on public land, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. The panel listened to representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) discuss their plans to manage public land use to reduce the impacts of OHVs.

The agencies are in the process of completing travel-management plans to direct OHV use on public land, but the BLM needs another 10 years to complete its plans. In addition, agency budgets for enforcement are decreasing with the 2009 budget calling for a $17 million reduction in USFS law enforcement activities. And, BLM resource protection and enforcement faces a $365 million cut.

The number of OHV users in the country has increased tenfold since the 1970s, to more than 40 million riders. Land-management agencies have tried to balance the use of OHVs with the need to protect sensitive areas, yet impacts to the environment and recreational experience by OHVs can be substantial. The illegal use of OHVs in restricted areas continues to damage habitat, displace wildlife and disturb other recreational users. In his testimony, Joel Holtrop, Deputy Chief of the National Forest System said that there are approximately 280,000 miles of roads and 47,000 miles of trails open to motor vehicle use in national forests. The management challenge stems largely from users who venture from the established road or trail system.

"We have many miles of user-created roads and trails on the national forests and grasslands," stated Holtrop. "These user-created routes are not part of the forest transportation system, did not undergo environmental analysis, were not designed and constructed for recreational use, and do not receive routine maintenance by the Forest Service. Some of these routes may merit consideration, with appropriate environmental analysis, as potential additions to our transportation system. Others run through wetlands, riparian areas and stream channels, and their use by motor vehicles adversely affects water quality, causes erosion and introduces invasive species."

Despite the increase in OHV use, OHV users still represent a small fraction of all users of public lands. Information submitted by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) cited the latest "National Forest Visitor Monitoring Report," which showed that only 5.6 percent of visitors to national forests go there to use an OHV. A BLM report estimated only 9 percent of public domain visitors were there primarily to use an OHV. However, organizations concerned with the impacts of OHVs on the landscape and on wildlife populations suggest that the agencies are not doing enough to reduce the conflicts. BHA Chairman Mike Beagle noted: "Several of our members are retired federal land managers. They feel strongly that irresponsible use of OHVs is out of control largely because of lack of agency direction, resolve and fortitude. Too many units of the BLM and Forest Service are hand wringing instead of acting."

"The increased levels of enforcement, education and rehabilitation that will be needed [to address illegal use] are significant," said Brad Powell, a USFS veteran and Arizona public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited. "I don't believe that the agencies are prepared for this implementation workload." (jas)

June 18, 2008