The National Forest Service is currently proposing actions to manage previously unregulated off-road vehicles (ORVs)—including ATV’s, dirt bikes, motorcycles and SUVs—in the Santa Fe National Forest. This has upset ORV enthusiasts, who have appeared at numerous public meetings wanting to know, as one yelled out, “What is the PROBLEM?!?”
ORVers question the specific reasons the Forest Service wants to prevent them from driving freely across the forests, and using existing trails and roads. The Forest Service’s response at a recent meeting was bureaucratic: “We are mandated to manage unmanaged recreation.”
But there are scientific explanations for why ORVs damage forest ecosystems in ways more extreme and rapid than mere human and animal foot traffic. Without understanding the damage their vehicles inflict on the forest, ORVers have little incentive to change their behavior—and the public has less incentive to request serious regulation of motorized recreation by the Forest Service.
Ecological research has found numerous negative consequences of ORVs:
Impacts of ORVs on forest ecosystems:
• Dust: Raised dust coats trees and vegetation, decreasing the ability of plants to extract energy from the sun. Plants near trails die off, widening the trail or road; the more trails have motorized vehicles on them, the more dust, the more forest die-off. Dust clouds also drive away rain, thus increasing the likelihood that ORVers will kill the forests through which they wish to drive.
• Noise stress: Noisy engines are physically stressful to all wildlife in the forest, interfering with mating, nesting, foraging, hunting and more.
• ORVs transport invasive species: One of the four greatest threats to US forest systems, invasive species can inhibit or destroy other species, even devastate entire ecosystems through damaging effects on wildlife, vegetation or water resources.
• Pollution: ORVs pollute air (through emissions and dust), pollute soils (through discharge of oil, gas, and coolant) and pollute streams and ephemeral flows (through increasing sedimentation, deposits and chemicals). Pollution of surface water often results in pollution of aquifers.
• Damage and disruption of rivers and streams. ORVs driving through surface waters disrupt habitat and fish breeding, as well as stream structure. Since forest integrity is supported by healthy streams, damaged streams increase the likelihood of forest disease, pests and fire.
• “Patchworking” of the forest: High density of roads and trails partitions the forest, reducing viability and resilience of vegetation, decreasing soil health and fragmenting habitat, which negatively impacts wildlife.
• Erosion: One of the most obvious destructive effects of ORVs, erosion of delicate forest soils, riverbanks and hills induces a disastrous cascade of consequences. By their very nature—their weight, compacting and scouring wheels, and lack of sensitivity to roots and vegetation—ORVs cause serious erosion, except on the most well-maintained trails.
Eroded trails and even single tracks interfere with normal water capture, instead channeling rain and snowmelt into fast flows that expose roots, destroy vegetation and damage natural slopes. Disruption of water flows means that trees and plants don’t get the water they need, effectively creating drought conditions for some parts of the forest, while other parts of the forest are destroyed or damaged by concentrated flooding that reduces regional aquifer recharge.
The list above gives only some of the most obvious ways that ORVs damage forests.
The bigger picture is even more disturbing, since combined stressors can destroy the resilience of forest ecosystems, leading to desertification—a set of feedback processes that take forests and turn them into deserts. Actions that increase the likelihood of desertification may be suicide for our community because with desertification comes not only loss of forests and grassland, but a rise in temperature and a dramatic loss of rain, snow and surface water.
New scientific disciplines are demonstrating how absolutely essential forests are to human survival and how literally valuable they are. Forests provide us with “ecosystem services”—necessary things we would have to pay for if our ecosystems did not provide them. These include indispensable foundations for human survival: clean air, comfortable climate and temperature, (since healthy forests buffer temperature changes, and induce rain and snowfall), crop pollination, flood control, pest management, carbon sequestration… and perhaps most importantly, forests provide clean and sustainable water, without which we cannot survive in this region.
The forests surrounding Santa Fe provide us with what we need to live here in beauty—let’s try not to destroy them.
You can still submit comments to the Forest Service regarding ORVs in the Santa Fe National Forest by e-mailing Commentsfirstname.lastname@example.org