Off-road vehicles should have reasonable limits

Off-road vehicles are lots of fun; there is no doubt about it. As someone with two bad knees and a four-wheel-drive truck, I love having easy motorized access to the spectacular forests surrounding the Rogue Valley. These days, though, whether hiking or four-wheeling, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing public lands that have been trashed by irresponsible ORV use.

The majority of ORV users follow the rules and do their best to minimize their impacts on the land. Some even volunteer with local clubs to maintain trails and participate in clean-up days.

Yet the bad apples have turned many of the most beautiful and botanically rich meadows in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest into mud pits. Irreplaceable "botanical areas" providing habitat for rare wildflowers near Eight Dollar Mountain and Oregon Mountain have been permanently scarred. Forest Service closure efforts, such as educational signs, and boulders and fences meant to limit motorized access, are routinely vandalized or ignored.

Vandals tearing up meadows is not a new a new problem for our local forests. Back in 2005, District Ranger Pam Bode told the Mail Tribune that botanical hot spots and meadows "are very popular for use in the Illinois Valley and Grants Pass. They come in here and drive through with large trucks and get muddy."

It is not just meadows and rare plants that are being trashed by irresponsible ORV use. Some riders find driving through water almost irresistible. ORV commercials often feature a clip of the sparkling new rig splashing through a creek or a stream. Many riders simply don't see any harm in driving in or through streams. It's part of the culture.

The result is that stream-side vegetation and banks are damaged in a number of places in the forest. Worse yet, the iconic Port Orford cedar, a creek-side cedar that grows nowhere else in the world, is being slowly wiped out by a root disease that can be spread by motorized use near flowing water.

Irresponsible ORV use also takes a toll on wildlife. Whether it's riding through elk wintering habitat or gunning through a salmon spawning bed, there are just some places where ORVs should not be.

Currently the Forest Service is preparing an environmental impact statement for motorized vehicle use on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. This process will place some reasonable limits on ORV use and result in a "motor vehicle map" that will establish where motorized use is allowed and where it is prohibited.

Predictably, the idea of any limits on where we can ride on public lands is being met with howls of outrage by those who see the national forests as limitless motorized playgrounds. But the fact is that the Forest Service really isn't proposing many limits at all. Under the most restrictive alternative being considered, 4,518 miles of road and 114 miles of trail would be open to motorized use on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. That's the equivalent mileage of a road trip to Mexico City and back. It hardly represents a proposal to "lock up" the forest.

The developed motorized trail system around Prospect is very popular and provides the niche that many responsible ORV users are looking for. This can be contrasted with the sensitive serpentine soils, meadows and wildlands of the Illinois Valley that are suffering from the very worst kind of motorized use. These special places need, and deserve, protection.

While ORV riding amounts to only 2 percent of the public use of the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, it is an important recreational activity for many families and deserves to be accommodated. But it shouldn't be the dominant use in botanical areas, research natural areas, riparian areas or on sensitive soils. Hence, it is disappointing that the Forest Service is considering a "plan amendment" to allow motorized trails in some designated botanical areas and research natural areas.

With rights come responsibilities, and it's time for the ORV community to take responsibility and accept that we can have fun in the woods without damaging the world-class botanical diversity and wild rivers of the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. The new Forest Service efforts to protect the wildflowers and watersheds that most of us hold dear are long overdue.

George Sexton is the conservation director For the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and likes to take his four-wheel-drive biodiesel F250 to the woods.

Share This Story