A roar echoes among low-slung arroyos at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Seconds later, a three-wheeler bursts into view, tearing across the asphalt of Arivaca Road. Just as quickly, the machine disappears into a mesquite bosque on the other side, dust billowing in its wake.
In this sprawling preserve that borders Mexico, there's already plenty of damage from smuggling and illegal immigration. Now these ATV riders--by refusing to remain on designated pathways--are only adding to the dismal mix. They leave devastation in their wake, battering stream banks and pummeling delicate vegetation.
They also force a besieged refuge to grapple with yet another invasion. "The increase in the use of those vehicles has been incredible," says Sally Gall, acting director of Buenos Aires. "It has become a growing issue for us."
Buenos Aires is hardly alone. From border refuges to high mountain meadows, federal rangers consider unlawful ATV use to be a top law-enforcement issue on public lands, and a prime contributor to habitat destruction. While off-road enthusiasts perennially blame negative impacts on a small percentage of irresponsible riders, others say the widespread havoc points to a far broader problem--and they urge a thorough crackdown.
Today, they may have a new tool for achieving just that. And it comes, ironically, straight from a White House that's not exactly celebrated for environmental sensitivity. Executive Order 13443, signed by President George W. Bush on Aug. 16, 2007, mandates that federal land managers spare no effort to "facilitate the expansion and enhancement of hunting opportunities and the management of game species and their habitat." The order also requires land managers to "address declining trends" and "implement actions that expand and enhance hunting opportunities for the public."
But according to Rangers for Responsible Recreation, a group comprised of former land-management officials, among the biggest impediments to hunting and fishing is the explosion of ATV abuse on public lands.
In a petition sent to leaders of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service (which administers Buenos Aires), rangers called on agencies to implement the executive order "with a priority on ending and mitigating the harm caused to hunting and fishing opportunities from illegal and reckless off-road vehicle use on national public lands."
The rangers' faction is a project of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and its membership includes Jim Baca, former head of the U.S. BLM and currently the New Mexico natural resource trustee for Gov. Bill Richardson. He says the petition responds to a growing crisis. "I've been around land management for about 25 years, and there has always been a threat to these lands. But I've never seen a threat as big as off-road vehicles have become in the last six or seven years."
Baca describes the impact as "cumulative across the entire landscape," but particularly intense on riparian areas. "That's because these people like to go into the streams, and it destroys the banks. They're threatening endangered wildlife and destroying plant life in the desert that will take hundreds of years to recover. It's a real wasting of our natural resources."
Meanwhile, budget-strapped land-management agencies are chronically short on manpower needed to effectively address the crisis. Still, Baca argues that severe penalties--such as confiscating vehicles--would send a strong message to the ATV community.
But Duane Taylor argues that such a policy is overkill. Taylor is a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America. Both are industry trade groups.
Instead of confiscations, he says his organizations support boosting fines for errant riders. But he also suggests that critics are exaggerating the problem. "Certainly, there are a small percentage of (off-road) vehicle users who don't recreate as responsibly as we'd like them to. But it's our belief that the overwhelming majority of folks who ride ATVs and motorcycles do so responsibly. They like to stay on designated trails and enjoy a family experience. They aren't out there to tear up the land."
To Baca, that's just tired rhetoric. "The (pro-ATV) people will tell you, 'Oh, well, it's just a few bad apples,'" he says. "But it's more than that. Even if they try to be careful--and I think some riders do--one of their young kids will go off to the side and get into areas that are off the trail or off the road, and cause tremendous damage in a matter of a few minutes." He compares it to planting your lawn, only to have the neighbor's child stop by to practice wheelies.
The problem is particularly acute in the rapidly growing West, where nearly 30 million homes now sit within 30 miles of federal public lands. Coupled with a huge increase in the number of ATVs--registration of the vehicles tripled across the region between 1998 and 2006--conflicts among various users of public lands have become increasingly bitter. Those divides are playing themselves out in public, as huge entities such as Southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest are in the midst of updating their long-term management plans. Under that process, officials must attempt to balance environmental protection with addressing off-roaders' demands for more designated riding areas.
Pressure on the Coronado is intense; according to the Arizona State Parks Department, nearly 17 percent of Pima County households include off-road vehicle users. And at least 6 percent of Arizonans head to Pima County for their off-road fun.
At a recent public meeting, Coronado Supervisor Jeanine Derby noted the concerns of ATV enthusiasts, but said they wouldn't drive land-use decisions. Even now, "we do not allow cross-country travel on this forest with ATVs. It's restricted to designated roads and trails." She added that "there probably won't be an expansion" of those existing areas.
But that may not be enough to satisfy the mandates of Executive Order 13443, which requires land managers such as Derby to create, by Aug. 17, a 10-year agenda for meeting the requirements to promote hunting and fishing.
According to their petition, Rangers for Responsible Recreation are calling for that plan to include steps to minimize ATV impacts, to evaluate the impacts of current ATV access and to reassess the penalties for infractions. The petition also calls on the administration to address law-enforcement budget shortfalls.
Failure to act will only prolong the destruction, says Daniel Patterson, director of the rangers' organization. "It's hard for critics to argue with the expertise of this group. And we want the agencies to get serious about planning to reduce off-road vehicle activity."