You don’t need a degree in agriculture to see that driving a motor vehicle off-road into a farmer’s field or a timber company’s forest can leave scars on the land.
What’s not so obvious is the open wound destructive trespassers leave in the relationship between sportsmen and landowners.
Off-highway vehicle riders in recent years have had a dramatic impact on where we hunt, fish, hike, camp, pick mushrooms and otherwise enjoy the outdoors.
Private timber companies in the region – Potlatch and Inland Empire Paper – have scaled back on motorized use of their lands after fruitless attempts to keep dirt bikes, ATVs and snowmobiles on designated routes.
In the past few years, IEP has booted snowmobiles off its road system on Mount Spokane after years of effort to stop them from straying into open timber stands where they cause damage to young trees.
IEP followed two years ago by gating its roads to motor vehicles on Mica Peak east of Spokane.
But managers of land, public or private, acknowledge there’s never been a sign that couldn’t be ignored or a gate that couldn’t be circumvented.
Last summer I joined a Spokane Mountaineers hike led by a man who had permission to explore the area a private party was selling to the Spokane County Conservation Futures Program.
As we hiked the logging roads we noticed trails branching off and up the slopes. Many of them had become ditches of erosion.
“The family that owns this land has a constant battle with people who think they have a right to come in here and ride their dirt bikes or ATVs anywhere they want,” said the leader, who asked to remain anonymous.
Later in the walk, we heard the roar of dirt bikes. I waited at the top of a ridge and snapped photos of six motorcyclists as they rode up an unauthorized trail right past several “no trespassing” signs.
When they saw our group, they made a U-turn and headed back down the mountain past the private property signs again without stopping.
Later we ran into another group of riders on a logging road that had no option but to stop. They politely shut off their engines. The hike leader pointed out that no motorized access was allowed anywhere in the area.
The cyclists acknowledged that they had come onto the private road system on Inland Empire Paper roads closed to unauthorized motor vehicles.
But what the heck, they essentially said. We’re here to ride.
The woman who was leading the group started her bike and accelerated rapidly, passing inches from my side and deafening my left ear as I snapped her photo.
When contacted this week, the hiking leader said, “I never had any more trouble from that group of off-road dirt bikers and I hiked the area regularly last year. … They were respectful and complied with the request to not trespass.”
But they were disrespectful in trespassing in the first place.
Unethical and illegal off-road riding has cost society a fortune. The Forest Service alone spends millions of dollars installing gates and digging tank traps to regulate traffic on timber sale road systems – only to see a high percentage of them breached in one way or another.
State lands and wildlife area managers endure the same woes and budget drain.
“Antoine Peak is a prime example of areas where we have constant problems,” said Paul Knowles, Spokane County Parks planner, referring to the conservation area north of East Valley High School.
“They find a way to drive in, and when they reach a locked gate they tend to yank the gate open or cut the lock. We go through locks like crazy.”
Everyone I’ve confronted for driving past no-trespassing signs or around a gate on private or public land has claimed ignorance or suggested he had some sort of right to be there.
The inconvenience seems to be all about them, and to heck with everybody else.
Such selfishness has cost the public a bundle in more ways than one.
While most private landowners and timber companies shy from requests to use their names in a story about trespassing for fear of unneeded attention and hassles, some are willing to be on the record.
Cameron Hughes said he’s just put up “no trespassing” signs this month on family land that had been unposted for generations.
“The property has passed through the family from my great-great-uncle, who was the first settler up the St. Maries River around 1881,” he said.
“My parents acquired the property from my mother’s parents in 1955. They turned the property over to us a few years back. We raised cattle and my grandparents had an old school dairy. … After getting rid of the cattle, my dad planted the hay fields with coniferous tree species, with the exception of one field.
“We have, for the most part, never had a problem, until recently.”
The milestone in the relationship between the public recreationists and Hughes family came this month.
“As of today, we decided to post the property due to some idiots who have used our property as their personal four-wheeler haven, causing serious damage and ruts to the last remaining field that we haven’t planted with trees,” he said.
“Along with my brother and sister, we’ve been of the mindset, that as long as people are respectful of the land, no problem letting them hunt on the property. Well, that’s changed.
“Not only have they been tearing up the field, but there are a number of skid roads on the property that they have also decided to tear around on. This time of year the ground is soggy, some of the skid roads are on steep terrain and more prone to erosion.
“We’ve reseeded the roads after the property has been logged, but four-wheelers can make short work in tearing up a wet, soggy road before the springtime grass is established.”
All is not lost with the Hugheses, who still cling to some faith in humanity.
“Being a sportsman, I haven’t formulated a poor opinion of hunters,” he said, “but I have re-enforced my already poor opinion of those who feel they can drive four-wheelers wherever they desire.”
This isn’t to single out people who ride motor vehicles as the root of all evil. Some hikers are guilty of trespassing, littering, property damage and spreading ill will, too.
But while a jerk on foot can be a problem, the same jerk on a motor vehicle can do exponentially more damage to the land and access to it.