Everywhere where there is affordable gasoline, ORVs are impacting deserts, forests, tundra and grasslands. New technology has made much more terrain easily accessible to people driving quads (4-wheel ORVs), motorcycles, and snowmobiles. This has become the new disease of the frontier, spreading soil erosion, water pollution, and invasive weeds. In the Colorado Plateau’s especially fragile soils, motorized recreation–particularly illegal trails–crush “biological soil crusts,” (previously known as “cryptobiotic soil”) impacts that last for decades. Fine sand that was held in place by a matrix of fungi, algae, mosses, lichen, and cyanobacteria is eroded by wind and water, leaving less purchase for larger plants and carrying dust onto mountain snows that hastens spring melt.
Off road vehicle impacts are widespread but hard to quantify, since they have many primary and secondary impacts both on the land itself and on public lands policy. One activist told us of the map on the left, “Those are the currently existing, poorly built–usually not intentionally built at all–’roads.’ They’re not new. The only reason it was the proposed road system is that before the new RMP [Resource Management Plan], those roads had little or no legal status–they were just scars on the landscape, most of them left over from the uranium days. They were healing pretty well until the ORVers got ahold of them, and made them into a playground. And, just as importantly, lobbied to get those ‘roads’ legally designated as such, so that they couldn’t be closed. And perhaps even more importantly, the legal RMP designation of those ‘roads’ means that the area could not realistically be designated wilderness, roadless, etc. Having those old scars be designated as ORV routes essentially prevents the whole area from being protected.