Unruly off-road travel in Arizona is destroying habitat and natural landscaping

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot, including the landscape of some of the most serene and sacred parts of from arizona desert.

Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) says that during the pandemic, more people have ventured outdoors, many on all-terrain vehicles. While some were off-roading the right way, too many people didn’t, and some still don’t play by the rules.

We take a look at why this is having such devastating consequences for the state’s beautiful landscape.

Where there is no designated trail or road, that doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, jeeps and four-wheelers from exploring an area.

“All-terrain vehicles are as they say. Side-by-sides are called UTVs like Polaris, Razors, Can-Ams, there are different types,” says AZGFD officer Micah White. He is the Coordinator of the On-Road Vehicle Enforcement Program.

According to the ministry, the proliferation of roads is a major problem. Almost everywhere you look in the state, you can see new roads that have been created by these vehicles.

Once the tire tracks are laid, everyone follows.

“If you go back to 2020 at the height of COVID and the shutdowns, we saw unprecedented use of the forest,” White said. “It was a new user group in the landscape and these people didn’t seem to know that. They don’t have a land ethic, they didn’t seem to know that there were rules in the middle of nowhere that you had to stay on the roads, you know, that you can’t drive like a maniac, that there are rules for driving these machines.

Arizona desert view

“Blatant disregard”

Fences used to keep the land tended are often found in ruins.

“They come across cattle, you can’t keep a door together for less than a month and everything is twisted and broken,” says Andrew Parry, who works for a rancher in the Cottonwood Canyon area.

Gates, equipment and salt blocks for cattle are destroyed and found in pieces, Parry said, adding that cattle have been hit and killed by high-speed off-road vehicles.

The destruction is widespread.

The video was captured by an AZGFD camera west of Sedona at Bear Mountain where Deanna Bindley lives.

“The blatant disregard, the speeds, the recklessness. Two weeks ago there were people right here on the main road tearing up donuts on the main road with people around and cars. It’s absolutely disgusting “, she said.

Bindley says the noise from machinery destroys the quality of life for area residents, terrifies animals and kills habitat.

“Probably the biggest problem we have with OHVs destroying our forest service road is all the dust they create. These machines, even when they’re going, say, 20 miles an hour, they create really big clouds of dust. and many of them go 40 and 50 miles an hour. We have a significant dust problem and what is happening is dust is covering all of our roadside trees, our junipers, and killing them,” Bindley said.

All-terrain vehicle kicking up dust

Fines for habitat damage

“Here in the middle of nowhere we don’t have speed limit signs and people think that means you can drive as fast as you want, and that’s not the case,” said White. “It’s illegal to drive across the country where it’s against the rule if you’re driving across the country it’s a criminal offence. If you’re causing habitat damage it’s also another criminal offence, and if you destroy native plants, you can be civilly assessed the value of those plants and it can be very expensive depending on how much damage, how much destruction you cause.”

White says traveling across the country is a criminal offense and if caught you could be arrested or cited. Fines for cross-country travel range from $475 to $1,000 depending on where you are in the state.

The cost of the fine can increase significantly if you cause habitat damage. According to the AZGFD, a recent case was ruled a felony due to the severity of the damage and the rider was ordered to pay $10,000.

However, the application of these laws will not go further. They need the community and the runners to take responsibility.

That’s where Jay Hoff, the owner of Desert Dog Off-Road, comes in.

“Unlike traditional on-road driving, there really hasn’t been any training for people to drive off-road, but there is, you know, a courtesy level of driving habits that should be adhered to. Stay on the track, using moderate speed in the turns, understanding how a vehicle should go up and down a hill,” Hoff said.

He ensures the maintenance of these vehicles, as well as visits.

“Stay on the trails, stay to the right, be a safe driver, be a good steward of the environment, these are all things that people should all do conscientiously so that we can continue to enjoy what we have here” , did he declare.

More closures in the future?

White says if the problem doesn’t stop, he fears land management agencies will be forced to shut down. Desert Wells in La Paz County has already been closed due to damage from off-road vehicles and more restrictions will follow.

This may be the only way to save our earth.

“I appreciate that. I didn’t think that would ever happen,” Parry said.

The AZGFD wants everyone to enjoy the beautiful land of Arizona, but will investigate reports of behavior that destroy it.

In Arizona, all off-road vehicle operators are encouraged to take a safety education course before hitting the trails. This is hands-on training for licensed drivers 16 years and older, delivered by AZGFD certified instructors.

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