Recreational Use and Environmental Destruction

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Recreational Use and Environmental Destruction


In the United States, national parks were established with the aim of conserving remarkable natural areas, their environments, and the animals and plants that inhabit them. For much of their history, people have enjoyed national parks through low-impact activities such as hiking, canoeing, and camping. In recent years, motorized off-road vehicles such as snowmobiles, personal watercraft, dirt bikes, and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have become increasingly popular forms of recreation in national parks and other natural areas.

Environmentalists, park administrators, and outdoor enthusiasts have become concerned that the use of off-road vehicles is having a negative effect on the environment. Many older snowmobiles, ATVs, and personal watercraft use inefficient engines that produce a great deal of pollution for their size. Many people find the noise levels uncomfortable or are repelled by the smell of the exhaust from these vehicles. Users of these vehicles and advocacy groups for their manufacturers dispute that they are causing damage, and they assert their right to enjoy the parks as other users do.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Snowmobiles were developed in the beginning of the twentieth century, at first by modifying existing automobiles to function better in the snow. Joseph-Armand Bombardier, a Canadian auto mechanic, developed large vehicles with tracks for propulsion and skis for steering. These practical vehicles served as school buses, ambulances, and mail trucks during harsh Canadian winters. When a law was passed in 1948 that required snow to be cleared from all roads, Bombardier began developing the snowmobile as we know it today. Designed for use by mining and other industries located in remote parts of Canada, it also became an important mode of transportation for isolated villages, many of them populated by Native Americans.

ATVs took their current form in the 1970s, when motorcycle companies were seeking to expand their markets. The early 1980s saw technological improvements making the vehicles faster, as well as the introduction of automatic gearboxes and four-wheel drive. These improvements led to a great increase in popularity, with as many as 2.5 million ATVs in use by 1982. ATV users took to the countryside to enjoy their new hobby, many unaware of the environmental damage they could cause. Around this time, the popularity of snowmobiles for recreation also began to increase. Seeking out open, natural areas and trails, many users began to drive their vehicles in national parks, national forests, or other state and federal wildlife areas.

Many enthusiasts of traditional outdoor activities like hiking and camping have questioned whether the use of off-road vehicles is compatible with the purpose of U.S. national parks. In their mission statement, the National Park Service declares that it seeks to preserve natural resources for the enjoyment of current and future generations. Because of off-road vehicles’ ability to cause environmental damage, many conservationists argue that they should not be used in natural areas. Conversely, off-road vehicle users insist that, consistent with the national parks’ mission statement, they also have a right to enjoy the parks as they see fit. Forestry officials have sought to balance the needs of the two groups while simultaneously preserving the environment. In this spirit, the National Forest Service policy does not completely ban the use of ATVs, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles, but it does seek to limit use to properly established trails. Use of off-road vehicles or personal watercraft is banned in some areas deemed particularly sensitive.

Issues and Impacts

The use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park has been a subject of contention for several years. Through the 1990s, about 800 snowmobiles entered the park daily during the riding season until the Clinton administration prohibited their use. The Bush administration then reversed the ban, saying that new technology reduced the snowmobiles’ pollution. This left many critics skeptical, citing the need for park rangers to wear respirators at check-in points and a Bush administration study that concluded the park would be best preserved by banning snowmobiles.

Environmentalists also raised concern that animals such as bison and elk are weakened by frequently fleeing from the snowmobile noise. The use of groomed trails was also alleged to have encouraged bison to leave the park for Montana, where they were killed to prevent the spread of disease to domestic cattle. A study conducted to measure the effect of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park found that the noise from 250 snowmobiles in the park was audible to visitors to the Old Faithful geyser 50% of the time.

The use of ATVs on public and private land has been equally controversial. Although many users are responsible, riders who do not follow accepted rules of conduct cause serious damage. Riding in wetlands is particularly serious, as it compacts soil and decreases the ability of the ecosystem to filter and clean water. Some riders like to drive along streams, where the ground is relatively unobstructed. This creates accelerated erosion into the stream, fouling the water with sediment. The use of illegal or improvised trails can cause erosion, kill vegetation, and create access for larger trucks to travel formerly wild areas. Wildlife is also affected by ATVs; their noise can disrupt the nesting rituals of birds, leading to abandoned nests. Larger animals fear the vehicles and flee their noise, and ATV use may actually be counterproductive for hunters. Some irresponsible ATV users enjoy their hobby on others’ private property, leaving damaged landand litter behind. Disputes between these riders and offended landowners have led to vandalism.

ATV enthusiasts and advocacy groups representing vehicle manufacturers have always contended that the vast majority of riders are responsible. They further assert that the lack of public trails encourages riders to use areas that are forbidden. Those who object to the use of off-road vehicles in natural areas frequently cite noise as a major complaint. They argue that the tranquility of nature is spoiled by the noise of engines, whether it is from snowmobiles, ATVs, or personal watercraft. In a major policy decision of 2006, the National Park Service adopted a policy that would favor conservation over recreation if recreational uses endanger the environment. Overall, Bush administration policy has favored commercial and recreational uses of national parks and wildlife


ATV: Abbreviation for “all-terrain vehicle,” a four-wheeled vehicle designed for off-road use that is straddled like a motorcycle and steered with handlebars.

PERSONAL WATERCRAFT: Small boats, steered by handlebars and propelled by a jet of water. Often known under the trade name “Jet Ski.”

areas, though it is a policy that a future administration may change.

Disagreement between off-road riders and environmental conservationists is all but certain to continue. With the adoption of quieter, more efficient engines in some new snowmobiles and ATVs, objections over air quality and noise may soon decrease. Quieter engines may also decrease disturbance to wildlife, though many animals may still remain sensitive to human presence. Problems such as erosion and soil compaction are unlikely to be improved by new technology and are worsened by the creation of illegal trails and use of vehicles in prohibited areas. It is likely that a small group of irresponsible off-road vehicle users will continue to cut new trails and use protected land illegally. Poor enforcement of environmental laws contributes to the attitude of impunity that some users take. However, with the creation of venues and trails where off-road vehicles can be used safely, more riders might be encouraged to practice responsible riding.

State wildlife authorities and off-road vehicle users’ groups have started to teach more responsible riding in their safety courses and literature. With improvements in technology and education, and well-defined policy from wildlife management, riders hope to be able to continue to utilize most national parks and other natural areas. Allowing responsible vehicle use can also increase the public constituency for the conservation of wild, open land. Thus it behooves recreational vehicle user groups, government, and environmental groups to work toward such reduced-impact technology, better vehicle user education, and well-defined wildlife management policy.

See Also National Park Service Organic Act; Natural Reserves and Parks



Barringer, Felicity. “Park Service to Emphasize Conservation in New Rules.” New York Times (August 31, 2006).

“Parks to Study Snowmobiles’ Effect on Bison.” New York Times (September 28, 2007).

Seelye, Katharine Q. “Approval of Snowmobiles Contradicts Park Service Study.” New York Times (January 31, 2003).

Smith, Jessica. “Park Destruction Blamed on ATVs.” East Brunswick [NJ] Sentinel (January 25, 2007).

Web Sites

City of West Springfield, Massachusetts. “ATV Use on Public Lands: Who’s Having the Fun? And Who’s Paying the Price?” (accessed April 16, 2008).

U.S. National Forest Service. “Success Stories: ATVs and the Forest Service.” May 18, 2004. (accessed April 16, 2008).

Kenneth T. LaPensee