Off-road to Recovery

Outcome of NPCA lawsuit helps curb illegal off-road vehicle use in the parks.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

Rogue tire tracks scar the desert floor in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where off-road motorists have sent hikers scattering from trails. Rangers at Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have recorded 363 incidents of illegal off-road vehicle use in the last seven years, and a colony of endangered pitcher’s thistle plants is among the victims. River banks In Olympic National Park in Washington are torn up and stripped of vegetation.

It’s not that off-road vehicles are illegal in the parks. In fact, off-roading is a popular pastime in places like North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore. But as with any park activity, certain rules apply—and resource protection always comes first.

When it became clear that motorists were hurting those resources—some knowingly and others not—NPCA and two other conservation groups decided to do something about it. Using the Freedom of Information Act, NPCA reviewed Park Service documents revealing evidence that off-road vehicle use was causing widespread damage. That triggered a lawsuit in 2005 by Friends of the Earth in partnership with NPCA and Wildlands CPR.

“Litigation is always our last resort, but we found that the problems were too widespread and the violations too serious,” says Mary Munson, NPCA’s deputy general counsel. “Because of a general lack of funding, it’s difficult for parks to prioritize and enforce resource protection. Even when park officials wanted to issue citations or put more rangers on patrol, they didn’t always have the resources to do so. This lawsuit was our attempt to make the Park Service face those problems.”

In May, NPCA and its co-plaintiffs agreed to settle the case if the Park Service promised to implement pilot programs that would curb illegal use in ten national parks, including Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, Death Valley National Park in California, and New River Gorge National River in West Virginia.

The majority of off-road motorists are law-abiding people who want to follow the rules—but in some parks, the rules simply weren’t posted. So the Park Service is aiming to get responsible users to pressure their peers into behaving, and it’s producing a system-wide brochure explaining off-road rules and regulations to help advance the cause. The settlement also requires the Park Service to improve its reporting methods, strengthen its law-enforcement efforts, and issue more court orders to crack down on illegal use. In Glen Canyon, for example, park officials have begun confiscating off-road vehicles from motorists who break the rules. So far, it’s been a successful deterrent, and the amount of damage has decreased.

Jerry Case, chief of regulations for the Park Service, predicts that new rules and regulations will be ready to implement in at least two parks before 2012. “There’s a feeling among park staff that we’re finally doing the right thing,” he says.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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