Responsible Recreation: ATVs and the Environment

Riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs) can be a fun recreational activity. Many municipalities designate specific trails for this type of recreational vehicle. However, ATV enthusiasts often find themselves dissatisfied with the trails available to them. Some extremists have even formed groups that act against “tree-huggers” and environmental groups to try and claim public land for ATV use, while some ATV users simply disregard the regulations and ride off-trail. Regardless of how much fun it may be to break the rules, there are some serious environmental and practical concerns involved.

an atv user on a trail

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Tony Ahumada

For one thing, trail-building is a thoughtful process that simultaneously takes into account the enjoyment of users and the preservation of the environment. This careful design process includes creating natural barriers, preserving soil integrity and minimizing users’ harmful contact with wildlife. When any trail-users (motorized and non-motorized alike) deter from the trail, they can easily disrupt the delicate ecosystem around them.

For instance, a representative from Arches National Park explained that recreational ATV use is entirely prohibited within the park. Also, that cross-country travel in the park’s surrounding area of Moab is prohibited because “it destroys the living biological soil crust which holds the soil in place and sustains plant growth in desert areas around Moab and across the Colorado Plateau.” She added that biological soil crust is extremely fragile and incredibly vital to desert ecosystems. Other ecosystems share similar concerns as well as concerns about issues like trail-widening and gullying.

Irresponsible users may also neglect to consider the maintenance and cost required to repair damage to trails. Because the building and maintenance of trails often takes the form of a community-based project, all trail users, including ATV riders, should be encouraged to help build and maintain the trails that they use. The resulting sense of community and pride could help to foster respect for the environment.

It’s generally accepted that motorized vehicles have a harsher environmental impact than non-motorized trail-users, and the two categories of recreationalists cannot always coexist peacefully. Motorized vehicles tend to drive away non-motorized users like hikers and bikers because of excessive noise and intrusiveness. The noise and emissions can also be bothersome to wildlife, especially if ATV users are not adhering to a designated trail. Research suggests that the noise can disrupt the mating rituals of some species, including Elk. Research on the effect of ATV emissions on the environment is limited.

Lastly, going off-trail can be dangerous. Unforseen obstacles have a way of overturning vehicles, resulting in injuries to their drivers. Depending on the terrain, it is also possible for drivers to become disoriented or lost when they deviate from marked trails, sometimes in inclement environments.

Overall, the best way to enjoy ATV recreation without infringing on anyone else’s fun (human or wildlife) is to adhere to designated trails, and ones that are wide enough to accomodate the width of your vehicle. By doing so, you can enjoy trails today while preserving their beauty and utility for the future.

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