Off-road vehicle damage to public lands must stop

May 3, 2016

Full moon and Mojave Yucca in the Mojave Desert, on BLM land in California

John Dittli
Wilderness Society report documents land agencies’ failure to comply with decades-old orders to minimize harm.

On Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and National Forests, the agencies are mismanaging the use of off-road vehicles (ORVs) such as dirt bikes, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles, resulting in unnecessary damage to watersheds and wildlife, and conflict with other recreationists. This is in spite of a long-standing legal obligation dating back to the 1970s that requires federal land agencies to minimize such damage and conflict.

A report released today from The Wilderness Society documents this continuing problem and recommends that federal land agencies issue much-needed guidance to assist field staff when deciding where ORV use is allowed (a process referred to as “travel management planning”).  Specifically, The Wilderness Society calls on the agencies to ensure those travel management decisions actually minimize impacts as required – not just identify or consider them.

“It’s really important that the Forest Service and BLM stand up for the forests, deserts, critters, and majority of public land visitors who enjoy quiet forms of recreation, and make sure that off-road vehicles don’t cause unnecessary harm,” said Alison Flint, Counsel and Planning Specialist for The Wilderness Society. “It’s now 44 years after President Nixon directed the agencies to do this and still we are seeing widespread disregard of this responsibility.”

The need for agency guidance is acute given that the Forest Service is embarking on a nationwide process to designate where snowmobiles are permitted to travel, and the BLM hopes to complete hundreds of travel plans over the next five years. Continued failure to follow the law will put nationally renowned places and the fish and wildlife that live within them at unnecessary risk. 


In response to the growing use of ORVs on federal public lands and corresponding environmental damage, social conflicts, and public safety concerns, Presidents Nixon and Carter issued Executive Orders 11644 and 11989 in 1972 and 1977, respectively, requiring federal land management agencies to plan for ORV use based on protecting resources and other recreational uses.

Specifically, the executive orders require that areas and trails designated for ORV use be located to minimize: damage to soil, watershed, vegetation, and other public lands resources; harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitat; and conflicts between ORV use and other existing or proposed recreational uses. While the BLM and Forest Service travel management regulations echo the executive order “minimization criteria,” they do not provide guidance to field managers on how to apply the criteria. The result has been a series of losses in federal court where conservationists and recreationists have successfully challenged the agencies’ failure to minimize impacts.

Case Studies

While The Wilderness Society report highlights a handful of ORV management decisions that show what it might look like to minimize resource impacts, other case studies – many of which have been the subject of litigation – point to the agencies’ ongoing struggle to apply the executive order minimization criteria. Three ongoing planning processes particularly highlight the problem:

Rampant ORV Use Harms Fragile West Mojave Desert in California

Southern California’s Mojave Desert is a fragile, easy-to-scar, slow-to-heal ecosystem that is home to Joshua trees, the imperiled desert tortoise, and other unique resources.  However, the BLM has continued to sanction rampant and irresponsible ORV use and associated resource damage, leading to a 2009 court order requiring the agency to revise the area’s ORV routes in a way that satisfies its legal obligation. A BLM report in December 2014 documented areas overrun with tens of thousands of ORVs over the Thanksgiving holiday. Unfortunately, BLM’s 2015 proposal to double the mileage of its ORV network to more than 10,000 miles utterly fails to satisfy that obligation and blatantly disregards the 2009 court order.  Many of the proposed routes are rarely used or barely exist on the ground; others are causing severe erosion or facilitating trash dumping and other illegal behavior; and still others traverse sensitive wildlife habitat, the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail, or newly designated national monuments.

Iconic Utah Land Scarred by 4,000 Miles of ORV Trails

The Richfield BLM field office in Utah oversees some of the region’s most iconic and remote landscapes that contain fragile desert soils and vegetation and irreplaceable archaeological sites that are particularly vulnerable to degradation caused by ORV use. A federal court recently overturned BLM’s 2008 travel plan for its failure to minimize impacts to those resources. The 2008 plan had designated more than 4,000 miles of mostly user-created ORV routes – enough miles to drive from Atlanta to Anchorage – including about 400 stream crossings in an area where water resources are scarce and easily damaged.  The route designations are back before the BLM. Rather than shrinking and redesigning the route network to ensure it minimizes impacts, as required, the BLM appears to be focusing on attempting to justify the existing 4,000-mile network.

Snowmobiles Threaten Backcountry Skiing and Imperiled Wildlife in California’s Sierra Nevada

Five national forests along the spine of the Sierra Nevada are the nation’s first to conduct wintertime travel management planning under a new Forest Service regulation. From the bustling terrain of the Tahoe and Stanislaus, to the remote backcountry of the Plumas and Lassen, these forests are some of the nation’s most popular for backcountry skiing and provide last vestiges for rare and imperiled species such as the Sierra Nevada red fox and Pacific marten that depend on undisturbed winter habitat for survival. Yet the forests are generally proposing to rubber-stamp the status quo by leaving vast areas – up to 96% of the entire Plumas National Forest – open to cross-country snowmobile travel largely by default. The Stanislaus is proposing to reward decades of illegal snowmobile trespass into highly sensitive and unspoiled “Near Natural Areas” by amending the forest’s overarching land management plan to open portions of those areas to snowmobile use. These proposals are contrary to the executive order minimization criteria and other requirements in the new regulation governing snowmobile management.


The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.


Alison Flint, Counsel and Planning Specialist,, 303-802-1404

Phil Hanceford, Assistant Director, BLM Action Center,, 303-815-3158

Michael Reinemer, Deputy Director, Wildlands Communications,, 202-429-3949