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Off-Road Vehicle Damage Is Growing Concern

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The Wilderness Society has mounted a major campaign to combat this problem

Ear plugs and gas masks were as important as coats and boots for anyone visiting Yellowstone National Park in search of a winter wonderland on Presidents Day Weekend. Dominating the park was a snowmobile rally that annually draws more than 1,000 enthusiasts - and their machines. "Anyone trying to escape the rat race and find some peace and quiet picked the wrong place to go," says Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society.

One snowmobile can emit as many hydrocarbons and as much nitrous oxide as 1,000 cars. During the winter, some 85,000 trips are made into Yellowstone, and the National Park Service is trying to decide just how much snowmobile traffic the famous park can handle. Denali National Park faces a similar problem. The snowmobile lobby wants access to the two-million-acre wilderness area in the middle of Denali. "There are millions and millions of acres in this tate where snowmobilers can go," notes The Wilderness Society's regional director for Alaska, Allen E. Smith. "They don't need to race through the wilderness heard of Denali." Along with other groups, The National Wilderness Society is pressing the Park Service to restrict snowmobile traffic at Yellowstone, Denali, and elsewhere.

A snowmobile is one kind of off-road vehicle. ORVs also include dirt bikes, Jeeps, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and four-wheel-drive vehicles when they leave the road and head cross country. The category even includes Jet Skis. Sales have skyrocketed, and the average vehicle is faster and more powerful every day, enabling drivers to penetrate farther into once-remote areas. "The public lands contain hundreds of thousands of miles of roads ope to ORVss, so it is reasonable to protect untrammeled places," says Jerry Greenberg, who heads a new Wildrerness Society campaign to educate the public about the threats posed by ORVs and to promote limits on their use on public lands. Besides being noisy and polluting, they can damage the land and interfere with wildlife.

In December The Wilderness Society recruited more than 100 groups to petition the U.S. Forest Service to devise a plan that would confine ORVs to designated routes. Our 190-page document detailed abuse at scores of national forest sites across the United States.

"The lack of a coherent policy has resulted in a situation that is scientifically indefensible and environmentally devastating," Bethanie Walder, executive director of the Wildlands Center for the Prevention of Roads, said at the press conference announcing the petition. One forect where the conflicts between ORV users and other visitors is coming to a head is Colorado's White River National Forest, which is now seeking public comments on a long-term management plan that would rein in ORV traffic.

It's not just the major conservation groups that are troubled by motorized traffic that is growing rapidly on the public lands. Large segments of the hunting and fishing community, for example, believe that off-road vehicles are taking a toll on the land and its wildlife and are detracting from the experience of non-motorized visitors.

Evidence is mounting that ORVs pose a serious threat to wildlife, water, soil, plants, and the rest of the natural world. The Montana Wildlife Society recently reviewed some 4,000 research efforts dealing with all forms of recreation and is warning that the federal government needs to tackle the problem quickly and forcefully. "We're at a real important point," insists Gayle Joslin, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "If we don't make some now, we're going to see some serious long-term damage."

The nation's hunting laws, developed over the past century, have endeavored to maintain the ideal of "fair chase" and preserve hunting opportunities. "The increase in motorized access comes at the expense of both those goals," says Jim Posewitz. He is especially concerned about riders who create new trails.

It's not unusual for those favoring motorized acces to claim that any limitations are unfair to people with disabilities. John Galland of Minneapolis disagrees. "The argument that I can't get into the wilderness because I can't use my legs is fallacious," says Galland, a wheelchair-user who does not pretent to speak for all disabled. "I can get in there on a horse, with a paddle, or some other way. There are a lot of ORV users who are not responsible and don't have much regard for the quality of your outdoor experience."

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