The trouble with off-road vehicles becomes apparent during a 12-hour holiday shift with Mike Mumford, Colville National Forest law enforcement officer.
Despite the Memorial Day weekend reinforcements of county sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, state Department of Fish and Wildlife agents, Border Patrol and most of the national forest’s recreational staff — Mumford still had to turn his back on numerous violations.
Almost all of the problems were related to ORVs, a term for dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles and full-size four-wheel drives.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day to deal with all of this,” he said at 7:30 p.m. after writing his last citations of the long day to a couple riding an ATV. The vehicle was not registered and neither rider was wearing the required helmet.
On the way out of the Middle Fork of Calispell Creek, he pointed out a dozen illegal ATV and motorcycle trails splintering off the main road and into the woods.
“Addressing that issue is almost out of the question, yet those user-made trails are showing up all over the place,” said the 31-year Forest Service veteran. “They lead to a lot of resource damage.”
A chorus of similar observations from enforcement officers and public land managers across the nation is echoing all the way to the halls of Congress.
“I don’t think (Mumford’s) experience would be an exception across the West,” said Brad Powell, who retired from the Forest Service after 30 years and is now president of Trout Unlimited.
“When I began working with the Forest Service we were kind of proud that people could drive around the forests without many restrictions. But that was a different day. The agency is behind the curve in the explosion of off-road vehicles.”
In 1998, about 5.9 million ATVs and off-road motorcycles were registered in the United States. A 2008 Forest Service report estimates the current number up to 9.8 million.
Powell testified last week for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is investigating off-highway vehicle use on public lands. He advocated more education, funding and commitment to motorized travel plans that curb ORV damage to natural resources, including fisheries.
In 2003, the Bush administration’s Forest Service Chief, Dale Bosworth, highlighted the four major threats facing national forests and grasslands. Along with “fire and fuels” and “invasive species” he ranked “unmanaged recreation,” primarily off-road vehicle travel.
Bosworth’s litany of adverse impacts caused by uncontrolled ORV travel included soil erosion, habitat destruction, damage to cultural sites and conflicts with other visitors.
Scientists also have documented how ORVs spread noxious weeds and fragment and disturb critical wildlife habitat.
Many of the road closures in the Colville and Idaho Panhandle national forest seek to protect habitat for endangered species, such as grizzly bears.
On Saturday of the holiday weekend in the Colville Forest, two state wildlife agents and four Forest Service staffers spent five hours dealing with illegal and destructive ORV activity in Middle Fork Calispell Creek. At least 28 warnings were officially issued there plus 20 citations, according to Forest Service records.
“That’s a lot of resources to be tied up in one place,” Mumford recalled the next day, when this reporter joined him in his four-wheel drive pickup for the second day of his holiday weekend patrol.
“Memorial Day and Labor Day are not holidays we look forward to,” he said.
“There are two new race tracks up Tacoma Creek,” said Nan Berger, forest recreation staffer as she gathered her equipment in the Newport Ranger Station. “We know there are responsible riders, but they’re being overridden by the damage —maybe permanent damage —other riders are doing to the land.”
“Overall, I work on timber theft and many other issues,” Mumford said. “Food storage is one of biggest problems with dispersed camping because of the problems it can cause with animals, not just bears but skunks and raccoons, too.
“Fire safety will be a big concern later in the summer.
“Memorial Day weekend, though, is always our first bad weekend of the year for ATVs and dirt bikes, and it’s getting worse.”
Mumford found ORV violators in every drainage he visited that day.
Here are some observations from those encounters:
“Mumford was straight forward but courteous in all of his contacts, and the people getting tickets or warnings were civil in return.
“ORVers driving on closed roads were issued warnings, but citations were written for reckless driving, failure to wear helmets, alcohol infractions and unregistered vehicles.
“We have problems because some forest roads are open to ATVS, but they don’t loop. They dead end at another road that might be closed. We’re trying to work that out with the forest travel planning.”
“ Up Mill Creek Road, five ATVers are stopped for being on a road closed to ORVs.
They said they didn’t’ know the road was closed.
“Sir, have we had contact before?” Mumford asked one man while making his routine check of registrations.
“Yes,” he said.
“You live just down the road at Riverbend, do you?”
The officer let it go at that.
“This is their backyard,” he said later. “They’re pretty aware of it. Just because they’ve been riding a closed road doesn’t make it open. It’s always a push.”
“Mumford repeated this statement in similar words all day:
“I’ll give you my card so you can call me later to talk about this. I won’t debate the laws with you. I don’t like all the rules; I don’t get paid to like them. Just to enforce them.”
“Officers don’t necessarily crack down on violation hot spots with a heavy hand.
“Law enforcement doesn’t always solve problems,” Mumford explained. “Sometimes it just displaces it.”
“An Idaho man became upset as Mumford noted that his ATV was registered in Idaho, but not in Washington.
“I talk to Idaho officers about this and I get told different things,” the frustrated man said. “That’s the problem. We go back and forth on what we need. How do we know?”
Mumford acknowledged the problem with different laws in Idaho and Washington. “My advice is to get your information about Washington in Washington,” he said.
“At his first stop of the day at a campsite, a mother flanked by her kids thanked Mumford for his role in calming down the wild behavior the previous day.
“We don’t want good families to be driven out of the forests,” he said after he left.
Similarly, near the end of the day, a couple rode up to Mumford on their ATVs to thank him for his enforcement efforts the previous day.
“We love our ATVs,” the woman said, “but if they want to ride, that’s what the ORV trails are for, not through the campground and the meadows.”
“Organized off-roading groups tend to follow the laws and enjoy their recreation safely, Mumford said. But a rebellious code links other riders in an element of lawlessness.
“People were going past us as we were writing tickets up the Middle Fork, but by the time we got up to Delaney Meadows, everybody was parked,” Mumford observed. “There’s a big mud hole and mud with fresh green grass in the vehicle wheel wells, but I didn’t see them ripping up the meadow, so I couldn’t cite them.”
“Similarly, he learned that news of his arrival in LeClerc Creek had quickly spread up the drainage.
“My job is not universally appreciated,” he said.
But not everybody got the word. Near the intersection of the Dry Canyon Road (open to ATV use) he found violations in abundance. A youth fishtailed his ATV from a campsite out onto the closed Middle Fork LeClerc Creek Road followed by parents with open beer bottles in their pickup.
Siren. Flashing lights.
Before that contact was completed, Mumford had stopped four groups totaling 25 ATVs at that one spot on a closed road.
“OK, here’s the deal,” he called to the group. “I’m going to give you warnings for riding on a closed road, but I’ll be writing citations for any unregistered vehicles. So let’s check those registrations because I know you all want to get on with enjoying your weekend.”
Later he said: “An unbelievable number of people buy ATVS and motorcycles and they don’t know the rules. A lot of them don’t want to know the rules. On the other hand, it’s difficult to find all the rules for different jurisdictions in one spot.
“But they could help themselves if they would get the forest travel plan maps.”
“One ATVer asked Mumford why signs weren’t used to mark closed roads.
Signage is expensive, and signs that regulate use are generally destroyed, he said. Just 200 feet away was a winter-use restriction sign on Dry Canyon Road that had been rendered unreadable with spray paint.
“Mumford’s patrol up the North Fork of Chewelah Creek was interrupted by an emergency call for a motorcyclist injured in a speed-related accident back up the Middle Fork Calispell Creek.
“Lots of accidents don’t get reported,” he said en route to the scene. “They just go to the hospital.
“Some people think alcohol, seat belt and speed laws don’t apply on the national forest.”
On May 25, Mumford investigated one accident requiring hospitalization and logged nine ORV related citations, 25 warnings and about 100 contacts.
Memorial Day would be about the same.
He would investigate a fatal vehicle accident on forest roads later in the week.
“ “Four-by-fours have always been an issue, but the number of quads has grown exponentially,” he said. “They’re easier to operate than dirt bikes and cheaper than pickups. They’re causing most of the problems.”
There’s no end in sight to the pressure people and their new machines are putting on the forest, he said, and the trend for northeastern Washington counties to allow ORVs on county roads will only put more pressure and illegal off-road traffic on public lands, he said.
“Yesterday I contacted a quad with tracks. I might overlook a person going off the road in some places, but that was over the top. That machine is designed to go to places a vehicle shouldn’t go on public lands.”
“”Look what’s on TV,” Mumford said. “The ads show a lot of behavior that’s not appropriate — riding up creeks, climbing rocks, cutting new trails.
“The budget the Forest Service has for enforcement and education pales to what the ORV industry spends on marketing and creating an image of the sport.
“Right now, the only thing I can see that might help us slow down this problem is $4-a-gallon gas.”