Off-Road Vehicles

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Off-road vehicles

Off-road vehicles (ORVs) include motorcycles, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, bicycles, and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that can be ridden or driven in areas where there are no paved roads. While the use of off-road vehicles has gained in popularity, conservationists and landowners have prompted some legislatures to restrict their use because of the damage the vehicles do to the environment .

During eight years under President Bill Clinton (1946), environmentalists continued their progress in limiting or banning the use of off-road vehicles in federally protected areas, such as national parks and forests. However, with the election of George W. Bush (1946) in 2000, environmentalists began to worry their progress might be in jeopardy. As of 2002, the Bush administration had sent mixed signs regarding off-road vehicle use on public land .

In October 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to impose pollution control restrictions on off-road vehicle engines. The EPA said off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles, account for 13 percent of hydrocarbon emission released into the atmosphere each year. The EPA wants off-road vehicle manufacturers to switch from two-cycle to four-cycle engines starting in 2006. Snowmobiles would be required to reduce emissions by 30% in 2006 and 50% in 2010. The Clinton administration had planned to phase-out snowmobiles altogether in Yellowstone National Park .

In 2002, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed lifting the ban on off-road vehicles in the 50,000-acre Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in California. However, that same year, the BLM closed nearly 18,000 acres of federal land in the California's Mojave Desert to off-road vehicles. The closing was necessary to protect the desert tortoise , a threatened species .

A popular sport in desert areas, mountain passes, and riverbeds, owners and drivers of off-road vehicles defend their right to ride wherever they like. They contend that the Clinton administration policy of closing federal land to ORVs was discriminatory, since it favored recreational use of public land only for certain groups of the public, such as hikers, campers, and backpackers. But environmentalists claim that the vehicles scar the land, kill wildlife , destroy vegetation, and cause noise, safety and pollution problems. The knobby tires of mountain bicycles contribute to erosion in delicate desert areas and along the sides of steep mountain trails. Motorized off-road vehicles are more devastating to local ecology as landowners across the country are finding.

In Missouri's Black River, off-roaders typically discard beer cans, used baby diapers, and empty motor-oil cans. Usually clear, the Black River in places runs as green as a sewage ditch when algae are stirred up by the commotion of off-road vehicles. Some drivers drain their crankcases into the river. Inevitably, the oil and gas from motorized vehicles seeps into the river ecosystem .A bill passed by the Missouri legislature in April 1988 restricted the vehicles to areas of the river where landowners gave permission. Since much of the area is not posted, however, the law failed to halt a good deal of the use of off-road vehicles in the river.

At the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, an environmental assessment of the effects of off-road vehicles and foot traffic found the effects devastating to some species, particularly the threatened piping plover. The assessment recommended that the area be closed to the vehicles and to all recreation during the nesting season, concluding that the nesting site is subject to damage not only from off-road vehicles, but also from the human intrusion accompanying the use of these vehicles.

In California, about 500,000 acres of public land are open to use by off-road vehicles, and California conservationists have fought since the late 1980s to ban the sport in state parks. Off-roaders, however, waged their own battle. Editorials in magazines for off-road vehicles users urged readers to ignore posted property, sue for the right to use the land, and lobby their state and federal elected officials.

More than 30 states now have enacted legislation that regulates the sale and use of off-road vehicles, especially motorized ones. The legislation was more a reaction to the safety problems inherent in three-wheel vehicles than to the detrimental ecological effects of the vehicles in pristine areas.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission listed almost 1,000 deaths related to the use of ATVs from 1982 to 1988, and hundreds of product liability suits have been brought against manufacturers.

[Ken R. Wells ]



Daerr, Elizabeth. "Park Victories Losing Ground." National Parks (JulyAugust 2001): 18.

"Environmentalists Decry Bush Administration's OffRoad Vehicle Policy." KnightRidder/Tribune Business News, June 25, 2001.

Kilian, Michael. "EPA to Limit Pollution From Engines in Boats, Snowmobiles." KnightRidder/Tribune news Service, October 19, 2001.


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