Wilderness Regulations Threaten Off-Road Recreation

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The latest craze in state and federal land management is to designate large tracts of public lands as “wilderness,” a term that sounds perfectly reasonable and innocuous. After all, who doesn’t love “wilderness?”

Winter time at Yosemite National Park

View of Yosemite national park

Of course, there’s a catch: The Federal Wilderness act of 1964 states that areas that are “untrammeled” by man (a.k.a., untouched) can be set aside as wilderness. This means they can never be built upon, sold, leased, mined, etc. It also  means that “wilderness” can’t be used by trucks, 4×4’s, ATVs, snowmobiles, and even mountain bikes.

According to the Blue Ribbon Coalition (a special interest group dedicated to responsible recreation on public lands), the flurry of Wilderness bills being proposed and/or signed into law has raised a red flag in the access community and other multiple-use interests.

Environment vs. Enjoyment

Snowmobiling Yellowstone bison

This image of snowmobiling beside Yellowstone bison (taken in 1997) sums up both sides of the argument pretty well.

Obviously this is a tough call – no one wants to open up the entire national forest system to motorized vehicles willy nilly. Adding new roads, increased noise from off-road vehicles, and the “yahoo factor” (more on that below) has an environmental consequence. If an area is currently pristine, un-touched wilderness, it should most certainly stay that way.

However, what about areas that already have roads and that are already in use by motorized vehicles? While it’s likely that some of these areas should be set aside for complete and total protection, where do we draw the line? According to the 1964 law, the line is very clear: if the land in question has been touched by man, it isn’t supposed to be designated as wilderness.

There’s also the fact that everyone enjoys public lands differently – I’m not much of an ATV/snowmobile/dirt bike enthusiast, but I’m a big fan of mountain biking, and I honestly don’t understand how mountain biking on an existing trail impacts the environment. Even if my use does impact the environment, what about my rights to access public land?

More to the point: How do we balance the public’s interest in saving the environment against personal public rights to enjoy it?

Pros and Cons Of Wilderness Designation


  • Permanent protection. Once land is designated as wilderness, that’s it – it will never be touched again (baring a dramatic change in legislation of course).
  • Encourage responsible use. I mentioned the “yahoo” factor earlier, and this is what I mean: People who abuse the right to access public lands by dumping trash, going off designated trails, spilling gasoline and oil on public grounds, disobeying posted rules, etc. There aren’t nearly enough people patrolling federal lands and punishing these yahoos for their stupidity, and when a particular area is abused long enough, taking it away by designating it as wilderness might send a message.


  • It’s permanent. We all know that things can change. While there are plenty of places to go off-road right now, that might not be the case in 20 years. If regulators and activists aren’t careful, they’ll make everything wilderness and undermine the entire concept.
  • It’s being abused. The 1964 law is pretty clear – wilderness designations are supposed to be reserved for areas that are truly wilderness. That’s not happening right now according to the BRC.

Obviously this is a complicated issue with many facets, so be sure to educate yourself on the issues. The Blue Ribbon Coalition obviously has their perspective, and the website Wilderness.net supports the opposing point of view. If you are concerned about this issue, I would encourage you to visit both sites and learn more.

Filed Under: TundraHeadquarters.com


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  1. mk says:

    yep, agree 20 years from now we may have no more places to ride recreational vehicles, especially with the very FEW idiots out there ruining it for all the rest of us who try to respect the environment. Almost everytime out which is not very often, about 6-7 times per year, riding ATV’s we almost always see 1 idiot doing stupid stuff and riding off trails or at least speeding well above the posted 30 mph. I can see going 35 mph on the trails at times in spots, but come on, do they really need to be going 60 mph on an ATV flying dust 1/2 mile behind them and very dangerous going that fast with all the bumps and whoops.

  2. Jason says:

    mk – Even if it’s just one person on a Saturday, I think that the number of idiots is too high. Every time I go into a public forest, I see multiple people blatantly breaking the rules. With no enforcement, it’s hard to put a stop to this type of thing. If we had more Park Rangers that could issue hefty fines for breaking the rules, chances are good we wouldn’t need to designate areas as wilderness to protect them. Unfortunately, Park Rangers cost money…so what are you going to do. It’s too bad so many people think they’re above the rules – both people who can’t follow speed limits and trash rules, and people who try and use an obscure 1964 law to stop perfectly legal and legitimate recreation on public lands.

  3. danny says:

    i had the pleasure to visit Yosemite about 7 times back in 2003. It’s absolutely beautiful. The problem is, it’s visited by about 40 million tourist a year. If you go to any vista point and look over the ledge, the amount of human garbage and debris will break your heart. I was so outraged, i wrote a letter to the NPS on their website, and of course, go no response. The smell of diesel coming off the tour busses can be smelt deep in the woods. I totally understand the regulations for areas like this. To my knowledge, off roading is not permitted at Yosemite but the damage is already done. You even see people stealing the pine cones from the sequoia trees (which is illegal) and see people just throwing their trash right on the ground. It’s a shame how humans leave a wake of destruction in their path. Now, i’m not in total support of the tree huggers but their needs to be a conservative compromise. The only off roading i can do around here is on private lands with premission. Everything else is nature preserves. Tread lightly!

  4. rich says:

    The public should be able to enjoy mother nature, however like any other thing there has to be restrictions to keep the abusers under control. If the government managed the enforcement differently then they could hire more rangers to enforce the rules. In other words, the federal government puts all money collect through civil action into the general fund. If that money went back into the operating cost for the park rangers then I believe there would be enough rangers to keep things under control. With this in mind I think there could be a balance between conservation and recreation!

  5. TXTee says:

    It’s difficult to get that balance and some of the rules seem strict but it’s the few yahoos to blame for most of the issues. I remember going for a simple walk at a California state park and was told I could only go on a specific trail because I had my dog with me. I watched as others got to walk in a nicer area and witnessed them leaving trash behind in addition to just being too loud….yet my pooch and I had to take the “boring” short path. Because some people don’t pick up after their pooch, and it disrupts the migration pattern of the deer, we were also restricted from certain sections. It sounded ridiculous at the time but I get the point. However, there really needs to be a line drawn and better enforcements or else we’ll end up with no outdoor recreation whatsoever. It’ll start with land use then fishing rights and other things will come into play. Before you know it, we’re a 100% “indoor bubble” society….and they wonder why the nation is becoming obese! I bet if they found a way to charge for recreational activities that benefited in a nice lucrative way, there’d be no issue and they’d outsource the cleaning of the area to somebody else.

  6. Jason says:

    danny – Great point. I’ve seen that same thing in a few places, and it’s heart breaking. I think you’re saying that people are inherently the problem, and I can’t disagree with that assessment. I think, considering Yosemite’s popularity, it’s fair for the rules to be a little more strict there. My biggest concern isn’t that some particular spot of land is cordoned off – it’s that this is being done by people who are staunchly anti-off road. There’s got to be a balance between off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists (just as you say). Right now, the pendulum seems to be swing for the greenies (at least that’s one man’s opinion).
    Rich – That’s an interesting point. I wasn’t aware of how the funds were doled out. Sounds like you’ve got some personal experience with this one…feel free to share more. I’d like to learn as much as I can.
    TXTee – I think you hit the nail on the head – how can we come up with a way to pay for off-road use? I know that hunters often pay healthy tag fees, with the lion’s share of that money going to make state parks better. I also know that most state parks and national forests have entry fees, but since every use is a little different, the fees should probably be a little different…I don’t know. It’s a tough one.

  7. rich says:

    Jason, unlike state, county, and local enforcement agencies…the fed does not use money collected from civil penalties to fund their enforcement agencies. The feds don’t want the perception that the only reason they enforce penalties is to gain revenue for that agency. For example, the millions that US DOT collects from Toyota will go into the general fund and have no affect on NHTSA. Let just say I know this because I’ve got federal experience. I do think some programs could be a lot stronger if the rules were changed.

  8. Jason says:

    rich – That’s good to know. I suppose I understand the motivation, but I think the forest service needs all the money they can get. My local police make money off the speeding tickets they issue, and as much as I dislike that I realize the money goes to making all of us a little safer…but what do I know, right? 🙂 Thanks for the info.

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