DURANGO, Colo. – In the San Juan National Forest here, an iron rod gate is the last barrier to the Weminuche Wilderness, a mountain redoubt above 10,000 feet where wheels are not allowed.
But the gate has been knocked down repeatedly, shot at and generally disregarded. Miles beyond it, a two-track trail has been punched into the wilderness by errant all-terrain-vehicle riders who have insisted on going their own way, on-trail or off.
From Colorado’s forests to Utah’s sandstone canyons and the evergreen mountains of Montana, federally owned lands are rapidly being transformed into the new playgrounds – and battlegrounds – of the American West.
Outdoor enthusiasts are flocking in record numbers to lesser-known forests, deserts and mountains, where the rules of use have been lax and enforcement infrequent.
The federal government has been struggling to come up with plans to accommodate the growing numbers of off-highway vehicles – mostly with proposed maps directing them toward designated trails – but all-terrain-vehicle users have started formidable lobbying campaigns when favorite trails have been left off the maps.
Even with the plans, federal officials describe an almost impossible enforcement situation because the government does not begin to have the manpower to deal with those who will not follow the rules.
To keep the lawbreakers in check, said Don Banks, the deputy state director in Salt Lake City for the federal Bureau of Land Management, the biggest land owner in states like Utah and Nevada, “You’d have to have Patton’s army.”
The growing allure of the federal lands coincides with marked changes in how people play, with outdoor recreation now a multibillion-dollar industry. It also comes at a time, according to data compiled by Volker C. Radeloff of the University of Wisconsin, when more than 28 million homes sit less than 30 miles from federally owned land that millions of people increasingly view as their extended backyards.
“Forty years ago when I was out cowboying I never saw a soul,” said Heidi Redd, who operates the Dugout Ranch near Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. “Now it’s at a point where you realize the public land is not yours, you’re just one of the users. And whether it’s A.T.V.’s, horses or climbers, it’s a traffic jam.”
Any user can contribute to the traffic jam, but the off-highway vehicles do damage disproportionate to their numbers. In addition to loud engines, they have soft tires and deep treads that bite more deeply than a foot or a hoof. When they go off-trail, consequences often follow: erosion, destruction of fragile desert soils or historical artifacts, and disturbance of wildlife habitats.