The damage done 

Tracks in the sand tell ATVs’ destructive tale

Thirty years ago I made my first pilgrimage to Utah’s red rock canyonlands, beginning a tradition of heading for the sun, the heat and the incredible vistas of the desert while Montana morphs from winter’s snows to springtime in the Rockies. Back then, the most common manner of accessing the challenging canyon country was by horse or foot. The “motorized” segment of the recreating public relied on tiny WWII-era jeeps with their sewing machine engines and their low and slow gears to creep into the backcountry. Not anymore. With the advent of ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), “access” no longer seems the goal. Instead, the point seems to be to leave no patch of ground untracked. Everywhere they can go, they go. And the damage being done to this fragile desert landscape is as inexcusable as it is incredible.

To appreciate the fragility of the sere desert landscape, consider the plant community called “crypotogamic soils.” Derived from Greek, crypto means “hidden” and gamic means “marriage.” The “hidden marriage” of the cryptogams is actually a slow-building association between algae, lichen, mosses and fungi. Incredibly hardy, this community of life survives extreme heat and cold as well as long periods with no water.

They multiply very slowly, but bit by tiny bit, cryptogamic colonies cover the sand, withstand the winds, hold precious water and allow the tiny seeds of simple grasses to sprout. Eventually decaying vegetation builds soil as sagebrush, cacti, flowers and trees take root and the land itself becomes more fertile, verdant and healthy. Without cryptogamic soils, the desert lands of the American southwest would soon resemble the eternally blowing sand dunes of the Sahara.

So important is this thin brown crust to the ecological health of the desert that there has long been a prohibition against walking willy-nilly on cryptogams in national parks and monuments. Even a boot print destroys the integral cohesion of the “hidden marriage” and can take years to disappear as the plant community struggles to re-cover the exposed sand.

Then came the all-terrain vehicles. In their earliest incarnation, they proved a boon to ranchers. Easier to transport than a horse, their fat little tires and narrow tread width made it possible to cross un-roaded lands and pastures, navigate dry washes, ford small streams or move a herd of cows.

As a tool, ATVs were great. As a toy, they are hell on wheels.

Easter Sunday found us camped not far off an access road on the west side of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Our tent was pitched among the scrub oak, desert cedars and fragrant junipers. Sixmile Creek, a small desert stream muddy with runoff, gurgled pleasantly over the rocks only a few feet away while a Townsend’s Solitaire sang sweetly in the waning hours of the day. Late snows still covered the high ridges, but the sun’s warmth had already coaxed the new grasses into life in the canyon.

Then came the pack of ATVs. One by one they churned through the canyon bottom, searching for a way across the tiny stream. Eventually they found a place to ford and powered down one side and up the opposite bank, where only a moment before no tracks existed. Grasses and plants were crushed and torn up by the roots, to say nothing of the fragile cryptogamic soils fighting to stabilize the sands.

In the political debate over the use of these machines on public lands we all too often hear how they are necessary to allow the physically incapable access to the backcountry. But the young men riding these machines all appeared hale, hearty, and well under 30 years old. Nor were they simply “accessing” the area, they were driving through every possible place an ATV could fit—between trees, under brush, up every tiny incline. We never saw a single person turn off his machine and walk anywhere. Wherever they wanted to go, whatever they wanted to see, they rode the machines—and behind them they left a trail of destruction.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the myriad tracks and widely scattered garbage, these riders were hardly the only ones to “wreckreate” in this canyon, just some of the first this spring. There, a mossy patch hidden in the deep shadows beneath a cedar had been literally destroyed by a single machine’s passage, while not far away five or six separate trails converged into eroded ruts then peeled away on individual paths that led nowhere in particular, just meandered through what was left of the fragile riparian area of Sixmile Creek.

The consequences of this unbridled environmental destruction are not theoretical, they are real. Individually, a single track may not be that big a deal. But the cumulative impacts are another matter. When tens of thousands of these machines rip through fragile landscapes every year, the good work of the cryptogams is undone, the slow march to stability and health reversed, and the soils bared to wind and water erosion. If some wonder at the increasing advent of destructive floods, they need only look at what is being done to the landscape for the cause. Destroying the vegetation destroys the soil’s ability to retain moisture—and 10,000 tiny trickles running down ATV tracks eventually add up to a torrent.

It’s not as though the land managers of the Forest Service and the BLM don’t know this—they’d have to be blind to not see the heart-breaking web of eroding tracks and ongoing destruction. But their “stewardship” has its regulatory roots in Washington, D.C., where the Bush administration recently classified golf course water hazards as “wetlands.” Like overfishing the oceans, polluting our waterways and air and plundering our dwindling natural resources, the Republican majorities in D.C. have no problem whatsoever bowing to the most outrageous demands of runaway corporate power.

Future generations will be fully justified in damning us for these short-term, get-rich-quick policies—and for proof, they’ll need only point to the damage done.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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