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Responsible Use

Off Road Vehicle Use

Treading on Trout: How TU is working to prevent ATV damage to watersheds

Try a Google search for ATV Environmental Damage and you’ll get 261,000 “results” – page after page detailing wild land devastation across the country. Irresponsible ATV riders, engaged in unauthorized off-roading, are tearing up landscapes and watersheds on our public lands.

A few years ago U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth called off-road/all terrain vehicles one of the top four threats to our national forests. “I could show you slide after slide – tire tracks running through wetlands; riparian areas churned into mud; banks collapsed and bleeding into streams; ruts in trails so deep you can literally fall in; meadows turned into dustbowls.”

Sedimentation from that damage is degrading water quality and compromising fish habitat – especially spawning beds. The Forest Service reports that there are nearly twice as many user-created trails than constructed ones. Many of the trails cut through the back country are made by hunters who ignore signs prohibiting motorized travel.

It makes sense that TU would get involved to prevent watershed damage that seems to be increasing exponentially. ATV initiatives have been launched in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, all states with significant populations of rare, endangered trout. Here in Colorado, the ATV initiative is headed-up by Aaron Kindle, the Golden-based Colorado Field Director for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. Aaron is an avid hunter and angler .

“Our job at TU is to save watersheds,” Aaron says. “Most headwater streams are on public land, and ATV’s are giving people new found access to these sensitive areas. In some places the damage to riparian areas is unbelievable.”

To be sure, the great majority of ATV riders don’t wantonly tear up the terrain. Many of them belong to organized clubs that often work to prevent and mitigate environmental impacts. Still, if just 1 of every 200 of America’s 12 million ATV riders chose to leave environmental wreckage in their wake, they have 59,999 like-minded riders as company.

So how does Trout Unlimited plan to prevent and undo watershed damage caused by ATVs? The strategy, according to Kindle, involves cooperation with hunters and hunting groups. “There are a lot of hunters who have the same respect for the land that we do. By partnering with them, we can wield a lot of influence with the people who can effect change – legislators, wildlife officials, county governments and others. One group we’ve been working with here in Colorado is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.”

The primary goal is to promote responsible ATV use and advocate for stronger policies and regulations similar to one in Idaho, where hunters in off-road vehicles in some districts are restricted to the same roads traveled by cars and trucks.

“We want to keep ATVs and other OHVs on designated roads and trails,” Kindle says, “but there’s not a lot of enforcement out there right now.” To help put more “cops on the beat,” TU worked with other partners to secure passage of legislation that gave Colorado Division of Wildlife game wardens the power to enforce OHV regulations.

“Education is another important task,” Kindle says. “We need to let hunters and our own members know how big this problem is and how they can behave in a responsible manner. Then we need to get them fired up to want to do something about it and help create and enhance a responsible riding culture.”

To sign up for free monthly Field Notes newsletter from Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project, just send your email address to Corey Fisher, with “Field Notes subscription” in the subject line.