An Investigative Report on Off Road Vehicle Use within the Gallatin National
By Margot Higgins and Phil Knight
This report represents a collaborative effort
between the Sierra Club and the Native Forest
Network, building on the ongoing Off Road
Vehicle research conducted by the Montana
Wilderness Association, Predator Conservation
Alliance, Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads,
the Natural Trails and Water Coalition, the Great
Burn Study Group and other environmental
Our work would not have been possible without
the talent and commitment of Tom Arnold, Rocky
Kallem, Scott Anderson and Moonshine (the dog)
of Ecological Reconnaissance -- “the eyes and ears
of the wilderness” -- as well as our volunteers who
spent endless hours documenting the damage
caused by ORVs.
Funded by a grant from The Sierra Club Foundation
“Off-Highway Vehicles: these have emerged as a systematic blight
on the public lands...Can we focus sufficient effective energy on this
issue, or will it overwhelm us?”
-- October 3, 2001, Deputy Chief of the USFS Jim Furnish.
Escalating off road vehicle use on western public lands is chewing up
and degrading remote backcountry and wildlife habitat, leaving few areas
that offer peace, quiet and solitude.
Destroying native vegetation, fragmenting wild areas, damaging watersheds
and harassing wildlife, motorized recreation has a surprisingly widespread
impact on our public land. This problem is particularly visible on
the Gallatin National Forest in southwest Montana, where ORV use has
skyrocketed over the last decade.
Embracing parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the 18 million acre
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton
national parks, portions of seven surrounding national forests, and three
national wildlife refuges. Comprising a major slice of the GYE, the
Gallatin National Forest serves as an important buffer to Yellowstone
National Park and is an integral part of one of the wildest places remaining
in the lower 48.
The Gallatin, Bridger and Madison mountain ranges within the
Gallatin National Forest are essential wildlife migration corridors, connecting
the GYE with other wild areas, including central Idaho, Glacier
National Park and on up the Rockies to the Yukon. Containing the
largest unprotected roadless area in the GYE, the Gallatin National Forest
is among the most diverse ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains. High in
the mountain peaks of the Gallatin are the headwaters of clean, clear
Graphic by Ecology Center
Trail erosion is one of the biggest problems associated with
heavy ORV use. This image shows how severely eroded the trail
to the top of Garnet Mountain has become from heavy yearround
motorized travel, making it hazardous for other users due
creeks and rivers, as well as watersheds for many towns and cities. Also
found here is the Gallatin Petrified Forest, one of the most extensive fossil
forests in the world. This fragile resource is highly susceptible to damage
and theft, and increasing motorized access exacerbates this problem.
Many of the Gallatin lands that face increased ORV traffic lie within
the grizzly bear recovery zone designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. The Gallatin contains 14 percent of all occupied grizzly bear
recovery area in the GYE as defined by the FWS. The area is also home to
rare wolves, bald eagle, lynx, wolverine and fisher. One of the reasons that
these species have thrived in the GYE is that more than half of the area
has remained free of roads.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service has been slow to monitor and assess
the impact of ORVs on public land in the GYE. Due to this neglect,
public resources including soil, watersheds, vegetation and wildlife are
being spoiled, perhaps beyond repair. Because federal land managers have
failed to keep pace with the growing impacts of these machines and their
users, the Sierra Club and Native Forest Network launched a full scale
effort to document the extent of ORV use on the Gallatin National Forest
and uncover the damage ourselves.
We examined ORV travel throughout the Gallatin in three distinct ways:
by documenting the damage in the field with sophisticated equipment; by
training and mobilizing a network of volunteers; and by speaking to various
forest users about their experience with motorized travel in the backcountry.
Shaped by the combination of these innovative approaches, this
report presents the public with a detailed picture of a trend that is reshaping
one of the most treasured landscapes in this country.
For the purpose of this report Off Road
Vehicles include 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, motorcycles
and full size four wheel drive trucks and
A report by the White House Council on
Environmental Quality entitled “Off-Road
Vehicles on Public Lands” found that ORVs
have to some degree damaged every kind of
ecosystem found in the United States.
Every year more unauthorized trails are being
imprinted in the backcountry by ORVs.
According to U.S. Forest Service reports, ORV
use in the United States increased more than
150 percent between1990 and 1998. During
that time, the number of state-registered ORVs
and motorcycles in Montana more than doubled
to 18,953. Seventy-five percent of all forest
trails and 91 percent of trails outside
Wilderness boundaries are open to ORV use
within the Gallatin.
At a speech in Missoula, MT in September
2001, former Forest Service Chief Mike
Dombeck drew a parallel between today’s recreation
industry and the timber industry of 20
years ago. “On public lands off road vehicles
will be the issue of the decade,” Dombeck said.
“We seem to have this attitude that we can go
anywhere with anything at any time.”
Although extractive industries including logging,
mining and oil exploration once posed the
biggest threat to roadless areas, ORV use is
emerging as one of the region’s most serious
These ORV riders in the Brackett Creek
drainage of the Bridger Range ignored a
sign clearly indicating that ORV use is illegal
off-trail throughout the Gallatin Forest.
This random pattern of ORV use contributes
to the spread of noxious weeds,
destroys native vegetation and can start
forest fires by throwing sparks. Note how
conservation concerns. Like the influence of
extractive industries, motorized vehicle use is
altering federal lands with limited environmental
Lax law enforcement allows this illegal
ORV trail to climb Horse Butte near
Hebgen Lake. The trail enters an area
that has been closed to motor vehicles to
While the effects of logging, grazing, and mining
are usually concentrated in a particular area,
the destruction caused by ORV operators is
more scattered and unpredictable. Whereas
Wilderness designation can protect an area from
development, motorized vehicles often cross
Wilderness boundaries, and form a vast network
of user-created trails in otherwise pristine roadless
When trails become too muddy or rutted to
pass, ORV users often run their vehicles alongside
an existing trail, causing trails to deepen,
widen and multiply. Illegal trails begin as
small, simple diversions from a main path. Yet
they expand over the years, evolving into massive
scars with deep ruts and craters. It takes
just a few repeated passes over the same set of
tracks to create a new trail.
Like automobiles, ORVs are becoming more
powerful and sophisticated each year. Built with
technology that allows extended travel into
remote backcountry, ORVs expand trails, loosen
rocks, create large mud holes and increase soil
erosion. With tires that can grip virtually any
terrain, ORV use extends far beyond paved or
graveled roads, providing ORV users easy access
to a remote wilderness area.
A number of ORVs are powered by inefficient
two-stroke engines that burn a combination
of oil and gas. Two stroke emissions contain
a host of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals,
including benzene and methyl tertiary
butyl ether, which pollute the air and water and
potentially injure and kill plants, animals, fish
and microscopic marine life. According to the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these
engines discharge between 25 and 30 percent of
their oil-gas mixture directly into the environment.
Pickup trucks, trailers and recreation vehicles
that travel hundreds of miles to deliver ORVs to
remote backcountry areas are a common sight
on roads and highways throughout Montana.
The heaviest ORV activity occurs during the fall
hunting season, a time that wildlife is particularly
vulnerable to the stress of increased motorized
use in their habitat. When the snow flies,
remote wild lands do not get a break as ORV
use in the fall is quickly replaced by snowmobile
use in the winter. In the spring, ORVs and
snowmobiles are often out at the same time and
the pattern continues.
ORVs give a small segment of the population
easy access to remote backcountry. While it may
take a hiker several hours to reach a pristine
alpine meadow, an ORV user can get there in
far less time. Because they can easily access more
land, ORVs have the potential to damage more
public land. Seasonal restrictions are often violated
by ORV operators and with greater access
to wild areas comes a more concentrated litter
of broken machine parts and debris along trail
The Gallatin National Forest is in the process of revising travel use
plans, which include regulations on where ORV operation is allowed.
The findings of our report should help forest managers develop a forestwide
action plan which will prioritize areas and resources that are managed
for or closed to ORV use. We expect that these results will encourage the
Forest Service to improve monitoring and law enforcement efforts.
This report will provide Dale Bosworth, Director of the U.S. Forest
Service, Becky Heath, the new Gallatin National Forest supervisor, as well
as district rangers on the Gallatin and other Forest Service officials with
fresh feedback on the condition of the Gallatin National Forest.
By focusing on the Gallatin National Forest we intend to raise awareness
about the level of ORV abuse that is occurring on other national
forests throughout the world-renowned GYE, the Northern Rockies and
elsewhere. Much of the American public assumes that the Yellowstone area
is protected at the highest level. Here we offer a glaring example of the
land degradation that is taking place there, as well as the impact of ORVs
on wildlife, vegetation and recreational opportunities in the area.
Another major goal of this project is to mobilize and empower local
volunteers from diverse backgrounds, interests and age groups. Already
we have enjoyed and benefited from their enthusiasm and commitment.
We expect that the methodologies revealed in this report will make our
research a repeatable process for people who are concerned about burgeoning
motorized use on other public lands. We also hope that the network of
volunteers we have established will be useful for land managers who have
limited resources for ORV monitoring and enforcement.
A rider ignores a sign indicating that the
trail he is riding on is closed to vehicles
over 40 inches wide in Hyalite Canyon -one
of the most popular national forest
recreation areas in Montana.
Wild Trails File
Wild Trails File
Director of the
Yellowstone Branch of the
Native Forest Network,
co-author of this report,
age 42, lived in Montana
climbing, hiking, mountain
“ Our National forests are
being loved and neglected
to death. Almost everywhere
we went on our field
trips this summer, we found
trash strewn about, random
shooting ranges with shotgun
and bullet cases and
shot up targets everywhere,
rutted meadows from people
driving off-road, and
trampled, overused camps.
Worst of all, we found evidence
of motor vehicle trespass
in several locations,
Beartooth Wilderness and
the Cabin Creek Wildlife
“ The field trip I participated
in to learn
about GPS use for
documenting the condition
of wild lands
was fascinating. And
it was disturbing to
degradation of wet
banks, and hillsides
by off-road vehicles
in the Bridgers.
Multiple tracks, ruts,
and serious erosion
were common in
areas that were supposed
to be free from
motorized use. It was
evident a couple of
vehicles filled with
folks bent on target
practice or partying
can do more damage
than hundreds of hikers.
We found piles
of litter, especially
beer cans, shell casings
shredded by gunfire,
and even occasional
Prior to this report there has been no comprehensive analysis of the
impacts of ORV use on a whole national forest by a non-governmental
organization in the GYE. In addition, there has been no specific documentation
and codification of the damage ORVs cause.
Examining ORV use on a trail by trail basis, our researchers conducted
a thorough investigation of ORV use on the Gallatin National Forest. We
developed a standardized set of forms and codes for recording photographs,
GPS points, trail and road numbers, types and severity of damage
and habitat types. All GPS locations were recorded in Universal Transverse
Mercator points for consistency. Forms for public use are available at
Aurora, our ORV damage database, will
include a list of the various types of ORV damage
that were observed and corresponding digital
photos and will soon be available online for
use by any concerned individual or group. This
database will allow efficient storage and organization
of information on trail and resource
damage and any other problems related to ORV
use, such as user conflict or wildlife harassment.
The database will accept photos, GPS locations,
detailed notes and other pertinent information.
Users can then generate reports detailing the
amounts and types of ORV-related damage or
incidents in a certain area, and present comprehensive,
detailed reports to legislators or other
authorities. Reports can include GPS info, topographical
maps, and photos. For more information
about the database, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much of this investigation was shaped by
reports of ORV damage from forest visitors.
Included in this report are comments from individuals
who represent many different walks of
life in Montana, ranging from business owners,
to biologists, hunters and anglers, describing
Former Bozeman mayor Marcia
Youngman and City Commissioner Joe
Frost join researcher Tom Arnold in
August 2001. Pictured here, the three
examine piles of trash left behind by
thoughtless forest users.
how ORVs have affected their recreational experience in the Gallatin
National Forest. By incorporating this diverse range of voices, we aimed to
raise awareness among land management agencies about the broad scope
of Americans who are impacted by ORVs.
In addition to public input, we received endless field support and assistance
with trail closures, rehabilitation and public education. With simple
guidance and training our volunteers brought in thorough results and
demonstrated a sincere interest in our work.
During the summer and fall of 2001, we spent hundreds of hours and
covered hundreds of miles searching for evidence of wheeled motorized
trespass in closed areas and in allegedly secure grizzly bear habitat. We also
documented with digital cameras and GPS units, any trail damage, vegetation
damage, littering and other impacts we found associated with motorized
Aurora, the ORV database, is designed to allow people to efficiently
enter, organize, and report information about environmental
damage caused by off-road vehicles in a visually appealing
and flexible format. Aurora has multiple fields for entering trail
data, photos, GPS waypoints, and trail damage descriptions,
along with “error free” time-saving pull down menus. The pulldown
menus will be constantly updated by users, so the variety
of options (i.e. invasive plants, Ranger Districts) will grow with
use. The damage codes come in degrees which can be modified,
or expanded, by groups to fit their needs. Reports can be
generated in a variety of configurations to isolate information to
the user’s preference. The information in Aurora is organized by
trail number or road designation. The idea is to produce detailed
reports per trail with descriptions, pictures, numbers and nature
of incidents over a period of time, etc. for presentation. The GPS
Owner of Outa Ware
age 38, has lived in
Montana since 1983
motorcycle riding, hiking,
“ As long as you use ORVs
to get from point A to point
B that’s fine. But used
inappropriately ORVs can
change your whole experience
in the backcountry.
One time we were 50 yards
from a herd of elk when a
bunch of ORV riders came
along. They took first shots
and they chased all of the
Our research confirmed prior observations that ORV use can result in
severe erosion both on trail and off, destruction of ground cover plants,
widening and multiplication of trails, crowding, littering and trampling at
heavily used backcountry sites, harassment of wildlife, and conflict with
Regardless of current regulations, rugged terrain, or distance, we discovered
that ORVs have permeated nearly every section of the Gallatin
National Forest. We rarely saw Forest Service personnel implementing
rules, talking to users, or packing out trash.
We found evidence of motor vehicle trespass in the Absaroka-Beartooth
Wilderness near Cooke City, in McAtee Basin, on the Beaverhead
National Forest bordering the Gallatin, in the Bear Canyon area near
Bozeman, on the Big Sky Snowmobile Trail north of West Yellowstone,
and near Battle Ridge in the Bridger Canyon area.
ORV damage was the heaviest in a few backcountry areas: Rock Creek,
Ramshorn Lake, Buffalo Horn Creek and Windy Pass in the Gallatin
Range; Buck Ridge, Muddy Creek and Cedar Mountain in the Madison
Range; the west side of the Bridger Range and the area around Cooke
City. Each area had specific problems varying from excessive litter to trail
damage, erosion, and vegetation loss. Many of these areas experienced all
of these problems.
A hiker struggles to negotiate a trail that has been severely
degraded by motorized use. This trail was intentionally widened
by the Forest Service to allow for 4 wheel ORV use. It is located
in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area,
which the Forest Service is supposed to manage to maintain its
We found that some of the worst and most
pervasive damage is caused by people in four
wheel drive vehicles who drive off road through
wet meadows and mud holes and leave behind
large quantities of trash and litter. Most trailheads
have permanent fire rings and piles of
trash from people who chose to bring their
party into the woods.
In some areas, there was too much trash for
us to handle, and an extensive clean up is needed.
Nearly all of this is found in road-accessible
places, where it would require little effort for
people to take away the trash in their cars. This
points out one of the major problems with too
much road access – it is too easy for people to
make a mess and leave it behind.
For detailed, area-by-area information on our
findings please visit our website
contact Phil Knight at email@example.com.
Pictured here in the Buck Ridge area of
the Madison Range is a new trail that has
been started as the old trail developed
deep ruts from excessive use. This proliferation
of trails increases groundcover
loss. This trail leads to Muddy Creek and
McAtee Basin -- severely abused areas
where much ORV use and trespass has
Retired biologist with
Montana Department of
Fish Wildlife and Parks,
Executive Director of the
Orion Hunters Institute, age
66, has lived in Montana
fishing and hunting
“ I’ve had few encounters
with ORVs because I generally
select areas where
they don’t go. I go to roadless
Study Areas or classified
Wilderness simply because
I prefer to hunt in those
areas. Nevertheless, those
places are becoming more
difficult to come across primarily
because public land
managers refuse to accept
the responsibility to address
the issue of ethical hunting
and provide ethical hunting
environments or circumstances...
to pursue animals by
machinery violates the most
basic ethical perception of
what hunting is about and
has been for at least 100
The Dirty Dozen
CPA, age 37, lived in
Montana since 1991
“I make trade offs to find
non-motorized places. They
are usually farther from my
house and more difficult to
access. When I go to nonmotorized
places I expect
them to be non-motorized.
Hunting should not be
impacted by those who do
not abide by the same
rules. I have definitely
noticed more violations of
in the ten years that I have
lived in Montana”.
Multiple treadways and erosion created by frequent motorcycle
passage on the Buffalo Horn Trail.
The Dirty Dozen:
ORV Damage Zones on the Gallatin
1) Middle Fork of Brackett Creek and Battle Ridge: Trucks
and ORVs were seen off trail in this area, which borders an
important wildlife corridor. We found shooting ranges, litter,
trash piles and abandoned vehicles here.
2) Corbly Creek and Sypes Canyon: User-created motorcycle
trails climb steep ridges on fragile soils to the Bridger
Ridge from this area.
3) Bear Canyon: A severely damaged dirt road has been
recently repaired in this area, but it is being degraded again
by ORVs. We found large mud holes and multiple trails up to
eighty feet wide, fragile soils and land slides. Increasing yearround
motorized use is spreading into adjacent areas. We
also found user-created trails that had been cleared of trees
4) Hyalite Canyon:This is an extremely popular recreation
area where, four-wheel ORVs have violated trail closures and
we found evidence of trucks driving off-road, damaging wet
meadows. We also found a lot of litter and shooting ranges
strewn with debris.
5) Garnet Mountain and Pioneer Lakes: Trails in this area
were covered with loose rocks and showed severe soil damage
and erosion. Five-foot-deep mud holes have resulted in
severe trail widening and user conflicts in the area.
6) Porcupine Creek, Buffalo Horn Creek, Ramshorn Lake,
Windy Pass: This Wilderness Study Area is part of the
largest unprotected roadless area in the GYE, functioning as
an important wildlife corridor and critical habitat for grizzly,
wolf, elk and many other species. The Gallatin Petrified
Forest in this area has been impacted by too much access.
We also found motorcycle wheel ruts in wet meadows, usercreated
trails and poorly maintained outfitter camps. Trails
were widened and rutted from motorcycles and ORVs climbing
7) Rock Creek: There is a wide network of user-created
ORV trails in this Wilderness Study Area that functions as
critical grizzly bear and elk habitat. Here the Forest Service
has failed to restore the wilderness character of the area.
The area’s petrified forest has been threatened by too much
access and theft.
8) Continental Divide Trail and Lionhead area: There is a
growing web of user-created trails from heavy year-round
motorized use in this area. We saw extensive littering, off
trail damage and water quality degradation along the
Continental Divide Trail, one of the most heavily motorized
trails in the area.
9) Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area: This large
roadless area serves as a buffer for the Lee Metcalf
Wilderness and functions as critical habitat for many wildlife
species, including lynx, wolverine, grizzly, and wolf. ORVs
have traveled across this closed area through illegal trespass
on the Big Sky Snowmobile Trail.
10) Taylor Fork: We found the Oil Well Road ORV Route
lined with litter and machine parts. On this trail is an ineffective
seasonal closure for wildlife protection. The trail leads
directly into the Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area.
11) Buck Ridge, Muddy Creek, McAtee Basin and Cedar
Mountain: Heavy year-round motorized use has occurred in
this area, which also serves as critical wildlife habitat. Trails
were widened as ruts became impassable. We found evidence
of motor vehicle trespass in McAtee Basin and there
is a rapidly spreading network of illegal user-created trails
leading to Lee Metcalf Wilderness boundary.
12) Cooke City Area: There is intense year-round ORV and
snowmobile use and uncontrolled off-trail travel in this area,
which includes important grizzly bear habitat. There has
been motor vehicle trespass in Absaroka-Beartooth
Wilderness, which has caused a great deal of riparian zone
damage. A sixty five million dollar mine waste cleanup is in
process here, while degradation increases from motorized
Graphic by Ecology
Impacts on Wildlife:
Most wildlife species require places where
feeding and reproduction can occur without
encountering people. ORVs allow a greater
number of people to access remote wild areas,
which has a significant impact on species that
depend on secluded areas.
The main impacts of ORV use on wildlife
are displacement, increased mortality, changes
Founder/Editor in Chief of
March 2000 editorial
“ ORV use is an increasingly
issue with most hunters I
know. And while some folks
obviously love the moderngo-almost
stroke machines, many
more people - myself
included - admittedly hate
‘em when used by mindless
clods who zip around the
existing trails or creating
new roadways across fragile
terrain while thumbing
their nose at regulatory
laws and fellow hunters
who still prefer to use legs
and lungpower to get to and
from remote hunting areas
without polluting their surroundings
flatulence, offensive fumes
and torn up topography.”
in behavior, increased stress, reduction of reproductive
success, habitat degradation, and
increased human encounters.
ORVs destroy essential habitat for a number
of wildlife species, including threatened grizzly
bears, lynx and wolves and popular game species
such as elk, trout, and salmon, by trampling
sensitive areas, causing sedimentation and erosion
and destroying native vegetation.
Grizzly Bears are five times more likely to die in an area with
roads or trails, according to a 1991 study.
courtesy of National Park
Despite decades of scientific data documenting
the harmful impacts of motorized activities on
wildlife, a severe lack of appropriate ORV regulation
and enforcement has put many of these
species increasingly at risk.
Grizzly bears, for example, require large
expanses of roadless habitat in order to survive.
ORVs increase human-bear conflicts by increasing
human access to bear habitat, fragmenting
already disappearing habitat and chasing bears
away from natural food sources. Bears are five
times more likely to die in an area with roads or
trails, according to a 1991 study by Dave
Mattson and R. Knight, entitled the “Effects of
Access on Human-Caused Mortality of
Yellowstone Grizzly Bears.”
As the density of user-created trails increases
due to illegal ORV traffic, so does the likelihood
that sensitive species like the grizzly will
be subdivided into small, isolated populations.
According to a study in the August 2000
issue of Conservation Biology, roads can genetically
isolate populations of mammals, especially
carnivores. User-created trails can also limit the
genetic exchange between local populations.
When landscapes become more and more fragmented,
animals living in this remaining viable
habitat become isolated and inbreeding can lead
Much ORV activity occurs in the fall during hunting season when the
bears are in the especially vulnerable hyperphagia stage, a caloric race
against the clock when bears consume as much protein and fat as possible
to endure the cold Rocky Mountain winter hibernation. Fleeing from the
roar of an ORV can waste precious energy that the bears rely on for reproduction
ORVs fragment and reduce elk habitat, disrupt migration patterns and
isolate elk populations. By allowing easy access for hunters, motorized
trails can result in a disproportionate loss of bull elk. According to a 1984
study by Jack Lyon, published in the Journal of Forestry, motorized trails
reduce elk habitat effectiveness by twenty five percent with trail densities
of only 1 mile per square mile. With two miles of trail per square mile, elk
habitat was reduced by fifty percent and with 6 miles of trail per square
mile elk were displaced entirely.
ORVs impact native fish by increasing erosion and sedimentation,
which in turn damages riparian habitat. ORVs decrease the reproductive
success of aquatic life by altering and interrupting watercourses and blocking
the movement of fish into tributaries and upstream spawning areas. A
1975 study by D.L. Leedy found that sedimentation caused by ORV traffic
can decrease the number of large game fish by more than 90 percent by
destroying the invertebrate food supply for young fish, interfering with the
deposition of eggs, decreasing oxygen supply and increasing embryo mortality.
The Endangered Species Act requires that the Forest Service and the
Fish and Wildlife Service assess how ORVs in ever-greater numbers and
in ever-larger areas affect endangered species. Unfortunately, many
impacts have yet to be examined thoroughly by government agencies.
Impacts on Native Vegetation:
ORVs carry large quantities of weed seeds a substantial distance across
the landscape. One scientific study found that a vehicle picked up an
average of about 1,700 knapweed seeds after backing only 40 feet through
an infested patch. Eight percent of those seeds were still attached to the
vehicle after ten miles. The random nature of motorized cross-country
travel makes invasion patterns not only difficult to predict, but also allows
the weeds enough time to become firmly established before they are
The potential for ORVs to spread noxious weeds is well documented in
the recently completed Off-Highway Vehicle Environmental Impact
Statement and Proposed Plan Amendment. In the EIS, the Bureau of
Land Management and U.S. Forest Service found that as a result of the
“use of (ORVs) in a concentrated area, such as a trail, vegetation is
reduced and the soil exposed, which creates favorable conditions for weeds
to become established.” The EIS went on to note that “a review of weed
ORVs fragment and reduce elk habitat.
© Jeff & Alexa Henry, Roche Jaune Pictures, Inc.
Former special reconnaissance
officer of the U.S.
Marines, founder of
contributor to this report.
age 25, seasonal resident
climbing, solitude, hiking
“ Grizzly bears residing on
the Gallatin National Forest
are being harassed and
their ecosystems are being
destroyed by human recreation,
Motorized recreation has
invaded the wilderness and
replaced wild experiences
with technology and
tourism. These high-powered
machines alter natural
habitat with excessive
noise, pollution, vegetation
damage, and littering. The
more advanced motorized
becomes, the more wild
places will be breached and
inventory maps demonstrates the strong association
of weeds with roads and trails” and that
“these roads and trails serve as the invasion corridors
for many weeds, which then spread away
from those locations. Due to the random
nature of motorized wheeled cross-country travel,
the spread of weeds to new locations is not
Many scientists believe that if the rapid distribution
of noxious weeds continues at its cur-
ORVs can modify the wilderness experience
of people that seek quiet and solitude
outdoors. Pictured here a backpacker
examines a four wheel drive trail, during
a Wild Trails Campaign field trip.
rent pace, the invader weeds will dominate much of our rangelands and
forests within a few decades.
Impacts on Other Forest Users:
The presence of ORVs on public land makes escaping from mechanized
society increasingly difficult for hikers, hunters, anglers and backpackers.
Motorized use on public land impairs the recreational opportunities of
other people by creating air and noise pollution, tearing up trails, and
crowding the backcountry.
A peaceful walk in the woods can be easily disrupted by the piercing
noise of a nearby ORV. A familiar hiking trail can become a confusing
spider web of user created trails that are less safe to travel on. Hours
spent secretly tracking a herd of elk can be useless if the elk are alarmed by
the sudden intrusion of an ORV. A trusty fishing hole may be polluted
by a gas leak or oil spill. A favorite place to watch the sunset may lose its
charm if it also becomes a popular spot for motorized recreation.
Although self-powered recreationists, including skiers, climbers, bikers
and hikers greatly outnumber motorized recreationists, the number of
trails open to motorized use greatly favors motorized users. A recent survey
conducted by the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks found
that 90 percent of Montana trail users are on foot, while only two percent
According to a 1991 Forest Service Survey of adult residents in the
vicinity of the Gallatin National Forest, 78 percent of the population disagreed
with the statement “more areas of the Gallatin National Forest
should be available to motorized recreation such as snowmobiling, motorcycling
and other off-road vehicles.” Yet more and more quiet areas are
being lost because of a lack of Forest Service management.
Rules and Regulations
Forest Service Fails to Enforce Rules and
Although the Code of Federal Regulations
contains very strong language governing ORV
use and requires the Forest Service to closely
monitor the impacts of such activity, these regulations
are routinely ignored or minimally
enforced. As motorized recreation escalates, the
federal government fails to address or acknowledge
current levels of use. Only twenty-eight
law enforcement officers patrol 16.8 million
acres of national forest in Montana. The
Gallatin has only two full-time law enforcement
Nevertheless, there are new opportunities to
make improvements. In response to litigation,
the Forest Service has agreed to regulate and
limit ORV use in grizzly bear habitat on the
Gallatin. In addition, the Forest Service has
been directed to restore wilderness conditions in
the seven Wilderness Study Areas in Montana.
The agency is in the process of developing a
new round of travel management plans, which
This ORV road within the Taylor Fork area
of the Madison Range proceeds into the
Cabin Creek Wildlife Management Area
and receives heavy year-round motorized
use. Researchers found an amazing
amount of litter along this trail, including
machine parts, broken windscreens, gas
are expected to be complete by the end of 2002.
The Code of Federal Regulations addresses motorized recreation (36
CFR 261 and 295), specifically requiring the Forest Service to do the
* Plan off road vehicle use to minimize damage to soil, watershed, vegetation
or other resources.
* Monitor motor vehicle use. If the results of monitoring, including public
input, indicate that the use of one more vehicle types off roads is causing
Director of the Montana
Chapter of Trout Unlimited,
age 48, has lived in
Montana for 30 years.
fishing, hunting, backpacking,
“ We can see this problem
emerging more in Montana.
Where ORVs cross streams
is often in inappropriate
areas. They kick up sediment
and bust banks,
sometimes above a critical
area that might be good for
or will cause considerable adverse effects on the
soil, water, vegetation, fish and wildlife, forest
visitors and cultural and historic resources in
the area, the trail suffering adverse effects will be
immediately closed to the responsible vehicle
type or types until the adverse effects have been
eliminated and measures have been implemented
to prevent reoccurrence.
* Prohibit construction of any kind of road or
trail on National Forest system land without a
special-use authorization, contract, or approved
* Prohibit operation of any vehicle off Forest
Development, State or County roads in a manner
which damages or unreasonably disturbs the
land, wildlife, or vegetative resources.
Montana State Lands Policy Prohibits ORVs
The Montana state policy for ORVs says
“motorized vehicle use is restricted to federal,
state and dedicated county roads or other roads
regularly maintained by the county, or to other
roads designated open by the Department of
Natural Resources Conservation. Off road travel
But while the State of Montana wisely prohibits
off-road ORV use, the Forest Service allows this
high impact activity to continue.
History of ORV Related Decisions Affecting
management on the Gallatin:
1990: Bush Administration Throws Out
Forty Inch Rule
On June 25, 1990, the Forest Service, without
taking any public input, issued an order
overturning the nationwide forty inch rule for
ORV use on public land. Until then it was illegal
for citizens to drive any vehicle that exceeded
40 inches in width on a national forest trail,
by default prohibiting four-wheel ORVs. The
Forest Service’s order was in direct response to
intensive lobbying by manufacturers of ORVs
such as Yamaha, Suzuki and Polaris. The Forest
Service now permits vehicles up to 50 inches
wide on many trails, allowing a much greater
variety of motorized vehicles to access public
land, including powerful four-wheel ORVs
which can penetrate very remote areas.
On the Gallatin National Forest, the Forest
Service did not solicit any public input on the
decision to open wide the forest to all sorts of
motorized vehicles. Records obtained by the
Montana Wilderness Association in a 1998
Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show the
U.S. Forest Service did not receive one letter of
support for eliminating the 40 inch trail standard.
Nevertheless, the Forest Service merely
changed trail designations on the map, and
opened huge areas of backcountry to powerful
four wheel vehicles.
The impact of this decision has been especially
visible on the Gallatin. With over 2,000
miles of Gallatin National Forest trails open to
motorized use, only about 740 miles are closed
to motorized vehicles. For every mile of nonmotorized
trail on the Gallatin, there are over
two miles of trail open to ORVs, motorcycles
and snowmobiles. (A travel plan map for the
Gallatin can be obtained through any local
Forest Service office.)
2001: Off Highway Vehicle Plan Legitimizes
Illegal User-created Trails
In January 2001 the Forest Service issued a
decision governing use of “Off Highway
Vehicles”, including ORVs, on nine national
forests in Montana and the Dakotas, including
the Gallatin National Forest. Citing a 92 percent
increase in off-highway use of ORVs and
motorcycles in the tri-state area since 1990, the
Forest Service has restricted wheeled motorized
use to pre-existing roads and trails with no
cross-country travel allowed, including the use
of a single-track trail by a 4-wheeled vehicle and
the use of a double-track ORV route by a truck.
Despite the fact that user-created routes are recognized
as one of the worst impacts of ORV
and motorcycle use, in Montana and the
Dakotas user-created routes are being incorpo-
ated into official trail systems.
This decision has been appealed by environmental groups for several reasons.
Based on our observations in the field, enforcement of this decision
has been minimal or non-existent. No inventory of trails existing prior to
July 1 has been completed, so it is impossible to determine if a trail existed
before then or was created since. Once a trail exists, it could be seen as
legal by default under the OHV plan.
The Forest Service is required to analyze all trails and either include them
in the trail system or shut them down. But this analysis will take several
years at best, and meanwhile more illegal trails are being created.
2002: Forest Service Signs Cooperative Agreement with Motorized
On February 25, 2002, the Forest Service signed a Memorandum of
Understanding pledging “cooperation” with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a
national motorized recreation group based in Pocatello, Idaho and known
for advocating motorized recreation on public lands. The agreement lists
several goals, among them to “develop and expand a framework of cooperation”
between the Forest Service and the coalition and to make national
forest lands “available for recreation-related activities” within the law.
2001: Conservationists Win Increased Protection for Montana
Wilderness Study Areas
In response to a lawsuit filed by Montana Wilderness Association,
American Wildlands and Friends of the Bitterroot, in early 2001 a federal
judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to maintain and restore the seven
Wilderness Study Areas in Montana to the wild condition in which they
existed when Congress set them aside in 1977. U.S. District Court Judge
Donald Molloy ruled that the Forest Service has “abused its discretion” by
allowing ever-increasing use and development of the 973,000 acres pro-
tected by the Montana Wilderness Study Act,
including the 151,000 acre Hyalite-Porcupine-
Buffalo Horn WSA in the Gallatin Range.
While the ruling does not prevent motorized
recreation, which occasionally occurred in the
area prior to 1977, the Forest Service is now
required to take “reasonable steps to restore”
areas that have been damaged since 1977.
2001: Motorized Access Limited in Grizzly
Bear Habitat on the Gallatin
In response to a lawsuit launched by
Earthjustice Legal Defense on behalf of four
environmental groups, the Forest Service agreed
to regulate and limit ORV use in grizzly bear
habitat on the Gallatin in September 2001. This
case built on an earlier lawsuit which forced the
Forest Service to comply with the best available
science on the impact of roads on bears. The
Gallatin has traditionally managed grizzly habitat
by limiting the number and density of roads
and motorized trails. But recent improvements
to ORVs allow them to travel far into the backcountry
over more rugged terrain. In October
2000, a federal Court ruled that such off-road
use could have an impact on grizzly bears, and
that the Forest Service had not addressed that
impact as required by the Endangered Species
Act. Now, the Gallatin is committed to limiting
user-created trails under the same rules it applies
to roads and designated motorized trails and to
keeping ORVs out of mapped core bear habitat.
activist, outdoor educator,
contributor to this report,
age 28, seasonal resident
peace and quiet, climbing,
“As you drive through
Yellowstone National Park
towards Cooke City the
landscape is vast and
beautiful, disturbed by only
a single road. Leave the
park and it’s a different
story. While one may
expect to see more of this
wild terrain as they drive
east towards Cooke City,
the landscape quickly
changes to one that is fragmented
by a spiderweb of
trails. Heading towards the
Wilderness, you must first
pass a gauntlet of ruttedout
roads and trails abuzz
with ORVs and trucks.
Every thirty feet there is
another trail created by an
ORV. What was once a
spectacular valley is now a
Retired biologist for the
Montana Department of
Fish, Wildlife and Parks,
age 57, lifetime resident of
“When I hunt in the Big
Hole I see more ORVs in
the backs of trucks than I
do animals. There has been
a real softening of our hunting
public. They don’t like to
walk anymore and that
trend concerns me... There
are not too many places
where you can go and
enjoy being alone and at
one with nature these days.
My major concern with ORV
use is that if it continues to
contaminate and pollute the
experience of people they
will move somewhere else
(like a golf course) and forget
about the outdoor recreational
rules and regulations do
need to be better enforced,
but it is mostly a matter of
common courtesy to me -
like being a good neighbor.”
We expect that the findings of this report
will provide the federal government with the
necessary information to improve monitoring of
ORV use and enforce the present laws governing
the use of these machines. We also hope
that this research will inspire concerned citizens
to launch similar efforts on their favorite public
lands. Reining in out-of-control motorized use
on public lands will require dedicated effort
involving people all over the country.
Here are our specific recommendations for
the Gallatin National Forest, many of which
can be applied to other public lands:
1) Certain badly damaged areas, such as Rock
Creek in the Gallatin Range and upper Buck
Ridge near the Big Sky ski area, must be closed
to motorized traffic in order to rehabilitate
damaged areas and protect sensitive wildlife like
the grizzly bear.
2) National Forest Travel Management
Revisions need to be completed as soon as possible,
following recent court orders and complying
with the best available science. New maps
that clearly outline travel restrictions should be
3) Signs must be improved, updated and made
consistent with those on other forests. Trails
should be considered closed to motorized use
unless they are specifically designated as open
by signs and maps.
4) A comprehensive education program should be launched in areas that
attract heavy motorized recreation, such as Cooke City and West
Yellowstone. This program should include information on appropriate
motorized behavior, inform people which areas are closed and clarify the
ramifications of trespass and resource destruction.
5) Law enforcement programs should be increased in areas that are heavily
used by ORVs and snowmobiles, coordinating where possible with
Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks.
6)Gallatin Wilderness Study Areas and mapped core bear habitat should
be closed to motorized recreation.
7) The Forest Service needs to have a larger presence in the field. They
should improve communication with the public, encourage forest users to
pack out their trash, discourage people from cutting down live trees, ask
people to be more careful about where they shoot their guns, and make
sure that motorized recreationists stay on designated trails.
8)The Forest Service should conduct an opinion poll or survey to address
the different recreational interests on the Gallatin National Forest and better
incorporate these interests in management plans.
9)The Forest Service should consider using volunteers to monitor ORV
damage and enforce regulations. We have informed the Forest Service that
we are more than willing to do our part in organizing trash clean-ups,
assisting with trail closures and rehabilitation, removing weeds and
improving public education.
10) Nationwide Forest Service cooperative agreements with national
groups that have clearly defined biases, such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition,
should be avoided. The Forest Service needs to work equally with all concerned
Enchanted by wildlife, wildflowers, and
ridgelines that take their breath away, visitors to
the Yellowstone region may not notice the
increasing number of ORVs that are scarring
the landscape outside of the national parks.
Yellowstone country is so spectacular that it
attracts nearly 3 million people each year, yet a
threat looms which could ruin visitor experiences
for generations to come.
The findings of this report are a metaphor
for troubled public lands throughout the GYE
and northern Rockies. The six other national
forests in the GYE are also facing similar threats
from increased motorization.
ORVs are marketed as tools for escape from
the hum-drum of every day life, a way to blast
off to master the wilderness. “Be one with technology
and nature”, promises Polaris, a major
ORV manufacturer. While an ORV can be a
very useful machine around a farm or ranch, it
often becomes an invasive, high-impact monster
in the quiet backcountry of our few remaining
wild public lands.
Will threatened species like the grizzly bear
be replaced by motorized versions? Seven of the
eleven models of Yamaha’s four-wheel ORV line
are named after threatened species, including
the top-of-the-line “Grizzly.” At the Sierra Club
and the Native Forest Network we do not want
our children to grow up in a world where the only grizzly in the wild is
made by an ORV manufacturer.
While the findings of this report do not suggest that all public land
should be closed to motorized use, we hope to improve on past patterns of
use and inspire a larger commitment from the government and the public
to the overall health of the Gallatin National Forest.
To ensure the future of threatened wildlife species, as well as the ecological
and economic integrity of the West, we must begin to effectively deal
with the destructive impacts of ORV use on our public lands. These
lands, owned by all Americans, are far too rare and valuable to become
race tracks for motor vehicles.
Built in Montana, this powerful 6-wheel ORV, dubbed the “Land
Tamer” can carry 5 passengers and can travel across water. New
and more powerful ORVs are constantly being developed. The
manufacturer also makes models with 8 wheels and with tank
Owner of Timber Trails
outdoor specialty store,
lifetime resident of
Hiking, mountain biking,
“Obviously there could be a
huge detrimental impact
economically due to the fact
that the primary user group
(hikers) may stop going to
the forests If due to habitat
loss for example the grizzly
is no longer found in the
Gallatin Range, perhaps a
user that uses the Gallatin
for its wilderness may
choose to go elsewhere as
that wildness declines. Our
most outstanding attribute
in this region is our wildlands.
That is what makes
this area distinct and
unique. Once that wildness
is compromised that won’t
be the case. We need to do
everything we can to protect
that integrity... I do not
advocate a complete and
utter ban of ORVs on the
Gallatin but there is a great
need to actively identify
places that they can go
where damage will be minimized.”
American Lands Alliance: http://www.americanlands.org/
Bluewater Network: http://www.earthisland.org/bw/
EPA Recreational Vehicles site: http://www.epa.gov/otaq/recveh.htm
Native Forest Network http://www.nativeforest.org
The Natural Trails and Water Coalition: http://www.naturaltrails.org/
The Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/
The Sierra Club’s Grizzly Bear Ecosystem’s Project: http://grizzly.sierraclub.org/
Wilderness Center for Preventing Roads: http://www.wildlandscpr.org/
The Wilderness Society: http://www.tws.org/
Wild Trails Campaign http://grizzly.sierraclub.org/wild%20trails.html
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“We’ve got to make sure that off-road vehicle use of public lands stays within the limits of the land. You can have too many cows.
You can also have too many off-road vehicles.” --Former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, September 2001
“Our most outstanding attribute in this region is our wildlands. That is what makes this area distinct and unique.”
--Livingston business Dale Sexton
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