Stop Illegal OHV Riders by Getting Their Number

In the past I have written about the manyfold problems caused by the explosion of off-highway vehicle (OHV) use in Colorado and other western states rich in public lands. OHV abuse and over-use on public lands contribute significantly to lasting negative impacts on cold-water angling opportunities via watershed and downstream damage resulting from direct wheeled assaults on wetlands, stream-bank erosion and riparian area destruction, and water pollution and siltation of fish and invertebrate breeding habitat. Collectively, such motorized damage to public lands diminishes opportunities for quality cold-water angling, a major summer income generator for countless small towns and individuals.

Likewise, OHV abuse and over-use damages wildlife habitat and pushes game from its preferred seasonal use areas, either onto private lands or deeper into roadless and wilderness areas where motorized access is prohibited. Numerous carefully controlled research studies verify that elk and other big game flee sooner, faster, and farther from the sound of approaching OHVs than from bicyclists, hikers, or horses. This same noise aspect of OHVs likewise disturbs the backcountry peace and quiet a majority of non-motorized public lands users seek. And in some places and situations, especially when fast-moving off-road motorcycles, aka dirt bikes, are involved, non-motorized recreationists such as hunters, anglers, hikers and backpackers can find their physical safety endangered.

For non-motorized outdoor enthusiasts, these problems are increasingly frustrating as tensions grow between non-riders and rude and reckless OHV users. Tragically, the Forest Service and BLM lack the resources to adequately manage rapidly growing motorized recreation, assuring a growing number of over-use problems in the future. Even so, problems arising from in-our-faces OHV abuse -- riding in illegal places and/or in an illegal manner -- are within the public's power to meaningfully curtail... if we really want to.

And I, for one, like fellow members of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and other grassroots sportsmen and conservation groups, really want to. Self-policing and education as advocated by the many national, state, and local organizations representing the "legitimate" OHV user and manufacturer community isn't enough to address the growing number of spoiled brats who think public lands are their own personal motorized playgrounds.

This is why we welcome and support portions of a bill sponsored by Colorado State Representative Kevin Priola (R-Adams) that would address a major problem with OHV abuse on private as well as public lands: the inability to firmly identify outlaw riders who trespass on private property and damage public lands. Hiding behind the anonymity of helmets, and riding unmarked OHVs, these spoilers increasingly frustrate private landowners, law enforcement officers and non-motorized outdoorsmen because we have no realistic means to identify and hold them accountable for their destructive actions. Nor is Colorado alone in this problem and a growing public determination to do something about it. In the end, the only lasting solution is national legislation mandating all OHVs, including ATVs and snow machines, to wear identification tags large enough and displayed prominently enough to be readable and photographable from a reasonable distance.

Currently here in Colorado, the Department of Parks and Wildlife requires registered OHVs to display a small decal -- roughly the size of a credit card, with correspondingly small numbers and letters-on the upper forward half of the vehicle (they often wind up on gas tanks). But when riding dusty, muddy trails it's nearly impossible to read these mini-decals on most OHVs even if they're sitting right in front of you, let alone speeding through the woods. In fact the current system is a bad joke... on us.

I can't think of a single reason why any responsible OHV user would be opposed to updating the current system to ensure that all IDs on all OHVs (ATVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles) are large enough to see and position on the machine so that they can be readily seen. Logically, only reckless users who want to keep getting away with their illegal behavior would object to such an obviously necessary and benign improvement.

Last winter, the Durango Herald reported on this growing OHV identification problem. And what I told Herald readers then, I repeat for Huffington Post readers now: "People logically are less reckless when they know someone might 'get their number.'"

While uniform national legislation is needed to solve the spreading disease of OHV abuse arising from invisibility, the portion of Rep. Priola's bill mandating legible ID tags on all OHVs would bring about a tremendous improvement here in Colorado, while acting as inspiration for other OHV-troubled states. Specifically, the proposed Priola bill would sensibly require OHVs to display readable ID tags on the front and rear of every registered vehicle, making identification of rude, reckless and lawless off-roaders tremendously easier.

Unfortunately, Rep. Priola's bill is flawed by a huge loophole in that it would leave county and municipality roads wide open to OHV use. That is, the so-called "ATVs everywhere" portion of the bill would allow registered OHVs to use public roads posted for speeds up to 45 mph, which could easily lead to illegal encroachment on adjacent public and private lands while presenting significant safety problems for OHV riders and other road users alike. Additionally, OHVs would be automatically permitted to travel on streets in municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents under the current Priola proposal. Among other problems, this provision would take control away from counties and municipalities, which largely fund such roads, while increasing law enforcement's burden. Consequently, some officials as well as citizens are speaking up on behalf of local sovereignty. The Daily Summit, for example, reported that Rep. Millie Hamner has come out against this portion of the Priola bill, saying it would "undermine local control in [the state's] more rural areas that are full of natural resources."

Bottom line is that this weak link in Rep. Priola's bill should be revised to be acceptable to Colorado Counties, Inc., the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the Colorado Municipal League, county sheriffs, and the non-OHV majority of citizens, and then passed into law. As it now stands, even with its much-needed OHV ID element, unless the "ATVs everywhere" element is eliminated, the bill would create a net loss. Rep. Priola: Please, either fix it or nix it.

David Petersen