Off-road rule is off base

By Policy Director Jim DiPeso

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: The following op-ed was published on January 10, 2003 in the San Francisco Chronicle  and on January 12, 2003 in the Casper (WY) Star Tribune. REP is reposting it on our website in the fall of 2020 because, by Executive Order, the Trump Administration is trying to do this same thing now.


On Christmas Eve, the Bush Adminisration opened a giant can or worms that could unravel more than a century of progress protecting America’s natural heritage.

Under an administrative rule announced on a day when few would pay attention, any 19th century burro trail or wagon track could be routinely approved as a highway right-of-way on public lands. The rule, published Jan. 6 in the Federal Register, could result in thousands of roads being punched into the national parks and wilderness areas that define America.

Many of our nation’s most beloved national parks, such as Grand Canyon, Denali, Joshua Tree, and Rocky Mountain, could be opened to an onslaught of all-terrain vehicles roaring in via dirt roads legally sanctioned as “highways.” The impacts of bulldozing scattershot roads into protected lands would be immense. Roads mangle watersheds, eroding soil, wrecking fisheries, and damaging streams. Roads are invasion routes for me-first miscreants who poach wildlife, steal natural resources and archaeological artifacts, and dump trash in the back country. Roads strip wild lands of their primitive character, permanently breaking our generation’s connection with the young America that Lewis and Clark and other early explorers traveled.

The rule stems from a law, Revised Statute 2477, that was enacted in 1866—back in the long-vanished era when the federal government sought to open the empty West to pick-and-shovel miners and farmers scratching out a living behind horse-drawn plows. The law said, “The right of way for construction of highways across public lands not otherwise reserved for public purposes is hereby granted.”

In 1976, long after the West was settled, the antiquated law was repealed. Congress, however, kept alive right-of-way claims made by states and local governments. The rule would allow the Interior Department to validate such claims through a “disclaimer of interest.” Bush administration spokesmen say the rule would avoid arduous court battles over highway claims.

Maybe so, but the off-road vehicle lobby sees much more in the rule—a powerful wrench for breaking open national parks, wilderness areas, and other protected lands now closed to dirt bikes and ATVs.

There are good reasons for keeping such machines off sensitive lands. Sparks from off-road vehicles start fires. Their racket frightens wildlife and destroys natural quiet.

Inefficient two-stroke engines emit air pollution and dump unburned fuel that contaminates ponds and creeks. Knobby tires loosen soil that clouds fish-bearing streams.

Like rats carrying fleas, off-road vehicles bring weeds, plant disease, and other pest organisms into wild forests. Inevitably, outlaw riders leave legal roads and tear across open country, ruining wetlands, meadows, and other high-quality wildlife habitat.

The abuse of public lands by off-road vehicles goes back decades. In 1972, President Nixon highlighted their impacts when he issued an executive order permitting ORVs only in areas where their impacts and conflicts with other public land users could be minimized.

Unfortunately, Nixon’s order has not been enforced by public lands agencies lacking both will and adequate law enforcement personnel. Since Nixon’s time, ORV manufacturers have successfully marketed increasingly powerful machines that can intrude deeply into remote terrain, making enforcement more difficult and magnifying their environmental impacts.

The ORV lobby, funded by manufacturers through the Blue Ribbon Coalition, is as intransigent as it is effective. No one should underestimate the single-mindedness of the ORV lobby’s campaign to gut sensible limits on off-road recreation, punch roads into the wilderness, and turn our nation’s protected wildlands into machine-dominated amusement parks.

The administration’s rule is shockingly shortsighted. The wild beauty and historic heritage of special places across the West could be lost as long-forgotten mining trails are converted into roads spreading noise, fumes, pests, and destruction across our nation’s greatest landscapes.

The conservation legacy bequeathed to our generation by Theodore Roosevelt and other visionary leaders of our past could be squandered in short order. What a shameful lack of respect for our forebears and irresponsible lack of consideration for our descendants that would be.