Motorizing Yellowstone: - Sierra Club

Motorizing Yellowstone: - Sierra Club

Motorizing Yellowstone:

An Investigative Report on Off Road Vehicle Use within the Gallatin National

By Margot Higgins and Phil Knight

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


Phil Knight

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

dry this

Phil Knight

conservation concerns. Like the influence of

extractive industries, motorized vehicle use is

altering federal lands with limited environmental


Phil Knight


Tom Arnold

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

Phil Knight

Director of the

Yellowstone Branch of the

Native Forest Network,

co-author of this report,

age 42, lived in Montana

since 1985

Recreational interests:

backcountry skiing,

climbing, hiking, mountain

biking, backpacking,

wildlife watching

“ 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,

including Absaroka-

Beartooth Wilderness and

the Cabin Creek Wildlife

Management Area”.




Marcia Youngman

Former Bozeman


“ 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

see widespread

degradation of wet

meadows, stream

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

galore, trees

shredded by gunfire,

and even occasional

abandoned appliances

and bedsprings.”

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

Phil Knight

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

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




Andy Tuller

Owner of Outa Ware


age 38, has lived in

Montana since 1983

Recreational interests:

hunting, rafting,

backcountry skiing,

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

elk off.”

David Ellenberger

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

non-motorized travelers.

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

wilderness character.

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 or

contact Phil Knight at

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


Phil Knight

Jim Posewitz

Retired biologist with

Montana Department of

Fish Wildlife and Parks,

Executive Director of the

Orion Hunters Institute, age

66, has lived in Montana

since 1953

Recreational interests:

fishing and hunting

“ I’ve had few encounters

with ORVs because I generally

select areas where

they don’t go. I go to roadless

areas, Wilderness

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...

Allowing people

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


Randy Newberg

CPA, age 37, lived in

Montana since 1991

Recreational Interests:

hunting, backpacking

“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

non-motorized regulations

in the ten years that I have

lived in Montana”.

Phil Knight

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

and logs.

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

steep grades.

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

M.R. James

Founder/Editor in Chief of

Bowhunter Magazine,

March 2000 editorial

“ ORV use is an increasingly

emotionally charged

issue with most hunters I

know. And while some folks

obviously love the moderngo-almost

anywhere four

stroke machines, many

more people - myself

included - admittedly hate

‘em when used by mindless

clods who zip around the

backcountry, damaging

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

with motorized

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

to extinction.

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

and survival.

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.



Tom Arnold

Former special reconnaissance

officer of the U.S.

Marines, founder of

Ecological Reconnaissance,

contributor to this report.

age 25, seasonal resident

of Montana.

Recreational interests:

climbing, solitude, hiking

“ Grizzly bears residing on

the Gallatin National Forest

are being harassed and

their ecosystems are being

destroyed by human recreation,

especially motorized.

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

recreation technology

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

easily detected.”

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.

Tom Arnold

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

ride ORVs.

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

Phil Knight

Bruce Farling

Director of the Montana

Chapter of Trout Unlimited,

age 48, has lived in

Montana for 30 years.

Recreational interests:

fishing, hunting, backpacking,

birdwatching, backcountry


“ 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

spawning fish.”


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

operating plan.

* 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

is prohibited.”

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.

Scott Anderson

and Moonshine

Ecological Reconnaissance

activist, outdoor educator,

contributor to this report,

age 28, seasonal resident

of Montana

Recreational interests:

peace and quiet, climbing,

backpacking, back-country


“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

moto-cross track.”




Terry Lonner

Retired biologist for the

Montana Department of

Fish, Wildlife and Parks,

age 57, lifetime resident of


Recreational interests:

hunting, hiking

“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

experience. ...Laws,

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

Phil Knight

Dale Sexton

Owner of Timber Trails

outdoor specialty store,

Livingston, Montana,

lifetime resident of


Recreational interests:

Hiking, mountain biking,

backcountry skiing.

“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.”



Related Websites:

American Lands Alliance:

Bluewater Network:

EPA Recreational Vehicles site:

Native Forest Network

The Natural Trails and Water Coalition:

The Sierra Club:

The Sierra Club’s Grizzly Bear Ecosystem’s Project:

Wilderness Center for Preventing Roads:

The Wilderness Society:

Wild Trails Campaign


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North Dakota and portions of South Dakota. 2001

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Damage the Nation’s Wildest Lands. 2000

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Phil Knight

“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


Phil Knight

“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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