Sensitive natural resources increasingly at risk
Three years ago, the Hayes family of Benson didn’t have an off-road vehicle, but now they have a dune buggy and a four-wheeled ATV.
But “The Man” gets in the way of their newfound pastime, so on weekends, Dennis, 44, Michelle, 42, and their son, Josh, 15, load up the trailer and head to Happy Valley on the eastern flank of the Rincon Mountains to ride.
“We have to come out here because around Benson, where I live, there’s a lot of areas that are gated off and fenced off. Locks everywhere, so there’s really not a lot of areas to ride,” said Dennis, who was driving the dune buggy Saturday as Josh followed on the ATV.
The Hayeses are part of a growing trend across the nation and Arizona. Off-road vehicle use has exploded in the past 10 years, straining land-management agencies and risking some of our most sensitive natural resources.
State and federal officials are scrambling to deal with the roaring horde of ATV users.
All national forests are assessing motorized use of trails, and a Glendale state representative has introduced a bill that would require ATV registration and a user fee to fund education and enforcement. His goal is to preserve access and the land.
Rep. Jerry Weiers thinks his bill will pass this year. It is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the House and Weiers expects it to pass. The bill will move to the Senate, where in 2007 it failed by one vote when several supporters were absent.
The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of a nationwide assessment of motorized use of trails. Each national forest – seven in Arizona – must decide by next year where to allow off-road vehicles.
Weiers’ bill, which would take effect Jan. 1, is not aimed at restricting ATV users, said Jeff Gursh, an avid dirt biker who volunteers with the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition.
“All it does is give the land management agencies a tool for managing the land,” he said.
Proposed state law
Weiers’ bill would create an annual registration fee – estimated at $23 – for off-road vehicles and create a fund for ATV law enforcement, education and trail maintenance and construction.
The registration fee would raise about $8 million per year, of which 70 percent would go to the new Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Fund and 30 percent to the existing Highway User Revenue Fund.
Arizona State Parks would get 60 percent of the Recreation Fund, the state Game & Fish Department would get 35 percent and the State Land Department would get 5 percent.
The State Parks money would supplement the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund, which gets about $2 million annually from gasoline taxes. Game & Fish uses 30 percent of that money for education and law enforcement, and State Parks gets 70 percent. But it’s not enough, said State Parks spokeswoman Ellen Bilbry.
The additional money could expand State Parks’ pilot Ambassador Volunteer Program, which trains ATV enthusiasts to patrol popular off-road areas to look for damage, report problems and promote responsible riding, Bilbry said.
The program is limited to Scottsdale, Lake Pleasant and Florence Junction. The new money would also fund trail stabilization workshops, where ATVers can learn how to maintain trails, she said.
“That’s one of the ways to stop the damage, to get more people out there,” Bilbry said.
The Land Department would use its share to hire officers to enforce off-road laws, said Deputy Commissioner Jamie L. Hogue.
The department now has two officers to enforce rules.
“That’s two people for the entire state,” said Hogue, whose agency manages 9.2 million acres.
The new money would allow the department to hire off-duty law enforcement officers to work on state trust land, she said.
Weiers’ bill has been criticized in the House for being too vague. It would criminalize – but does not clearly define – damage to plants or animals, wildlife habitat, riparian areas, natural resources or property.
Weiers concedes that it is vague, but something has to be done. He said he believes we need action now, not later.
The bill has the backing of a broad spectrum of organizations, including the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, the Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and other off-road clubs and the Arizona Powersports Industry Association, which represents ATV dealers.
RideNow, an ATV store chain with 31 outlets nationwide, supports the bill, said Sean Steimel, manager of the Tucson RideNow store at 7501 E. 22nd St.
“We’d really love to see that get passed. We support him 100 percent,” Steimel said.
Steimel’s customers could benefit if the funds expand another State Parks Ambassador pilot program that provides packets of off-road information for dealers to distribute, Gursh said.
“So that people who do not belong to any club are reached,” he said.
Trail management plans
For the past two years, each national forest has been sorting out its share of 335,000 miles of forest roads and trails used by ATVs nationwide.
“Different forests are dealing with cross-country travel in different ways,” White said.
The spectrum of restrictions is broad. Coronado National Forest, which covers 1.8 million acres scattered across southeast Arizona, allows motorized travel only on designated roads – a restriction that has been in place for a decade. Apache-Sitgreaves allows off-road use in designated areas, and Tonto allows ATVs anywhere that is not marked “closed.”
Off-road ATV damage is not a major problem on the Coronado National Forest, where all off-road riding is banned, said Celeste Gordon, Recreation/Special Uses Program manager for the forest.
“There’s the occasional cutting of the fence, but generally people have been pretty good,” Gordon said.
Problems arise locally when people camp with ATVs. Camping is allowed 300 feet off forest roads, but campers don’t always comply.
“They keep pushing that limit, and the area just gets bigger,” Gordon said.
Happy Valley, a dispersed camping area along Mescal Road on the eastern flank of the Rincon Mountains, is an example. Cleared campsites dot cottonwood stands that line a seasonal stream and roadside there, and the area is crisscrossed with trails and roads cut by decades of camping and ATV traffic.
The Hayes family sticks to the roads, Dennis said.
“I don’t get crazy with it. I just like to go out and putter around,” he said.
The federal rule requires Coronado and other forests to have plans completed by September 2009.
“There will be more restrictions, but it wont be a huge change,” White said.
The plan will be updated annually, Gordon said.
“So if this go-around we don’t get everything, we’ll still be able to make changes in coming years,” she said.
Though the forest plan and Weiers bill could restrict access to public land, the problems from increased traffic must be addressed – and abusers caught, Weiers said.
He isn’t trying to keep people off the land – he just wants them to take care of it, he said.
“We want people to have access to the beautiful natural areas of the state, but we want them to do it responsibly,” he said.
By the numbers
$4.3 billion – ATV annual economic impact statewide
$403 million – Annual economic impact in Pima County
17 percent of Pima County households use off-highway vehicles
9.2 million acres of state trust land in Arizona
2 officers assigned to enforce off-highway vehicle laws on state trust land
Sources: State Land Department; Arizona State Parks
ON THE WEB
Arizona State Parks OHV Program: www.pr.state.az.us/partnerships/ohv/OHVindex.html
State Rep. Jerry Weiers’ House member page: www.azleg.gov/MembersPage.asp?Member_ID=58&Legislature=48
Coronado National Forest Travel Management Plan page: www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado/travel/index.shtml
Arizona Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition: www.azohv.org