Thoughts on ORVs on Public Lands

By Dave Johnston

I retired to West Virginia in large part because of its wide selection of wild and scenic natural areas provide excellent opportunities for immersion in nature, enjoyment of wildlife in its natural environment, broad and largely undisturbed vistas, and the study and understanding of natural processes. Through protection and sensitive management of these resources, West Virginia has the opportunity to move from an economy based largely on extracting natural resources to one where our resources are managed sustainably for the long term economic, health, and social benefit of the residents of our state—and for the visitors who help support our recreation economy. 

West Virginia has generally done a good job of preserving and managing its state public lands to provide opportunities for a variety of activities and usage interests, while retaining their natural qualities. West Virginia State Parks provide opportunities for more developed non-motorized recreation. State forest and wildlife management areas provide a wilder, more primitive experience. All of these public lands encourage traditional pursuits where hiking, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, hunting, and fishing can be enjoyed without intrusion of incompatible activities for a wide variety of visitors, allowing everyone to connect with and appreciate the natural values of our state. 

There are, however, activities and uses that are incompatible with the natural public lands of West Virginia. Off-Road Vehicles (ORV, ATV, UTV, Special Purpose Vehicles and the like) have a huge impact on our state public lands, far more than any other recreational use of state lands.   

Motorized trails are wide and inherently disruptive of normal vegetation and drainage patterns, having characteristics of neither properly constructed roads nor foot, bike or horse paths. One estimate indicates that motorized trails cost $30,000 per mile to build and $14,000 per year to maintain. 

ORVs disrupt the habitat and living patterns of wildlife. The frequent imposition of loud mechanized equipment tends to drive away even more adaptable wildlife, further limiting their range. This interferes with the ability of other visitors to enjoy encounters and observation of wildlife, and of hunters and anglers to responsibly and sustainably engage in harvesting wildlife. 

The noise and exhaust of ORV travel far, and effectively exclude a wide area surrounding the trails from enjoyment by visitors pursing normal recreational activities compatible with a natural area. ORV riders often leave the designated trails and spread their impact into adjacent forest. When they cross streams and wetlands, the natural bank is destroyed, and mud and sediment impact our trout and other species of fish. Detailed information about the damages to public lands caused by ORV can be found at the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance’s Conservation Hub.

Unlike multi-use non-motorized trails already present on public lands, ORV trails effectively cannot be used for anything else, with the result that large tracts of public land are removed from availability for general use, and instead become dedicated to a single disruptive and incompatible activity. 

Every year it seems some people in our West Virginia legislature attempt to expand motorized trails and allow ORVs on our public lands. No doubt claims of economic benefits will be touted. Yet that neglects the fact that many visitors, both from outside the state and from within, will be less inclined to go to state public lands and surrounding businesses once the natural values of those lands are degraded by the presence of ORV trail systems. This will affect not only the local area, but also the state as a whole as it becomes known beyond our borders that WV’s parks and forests are no longer natural areas protected from intrusion of loud motorized vehicles. 

This year is no different. Proposed legislation allows for “connector” trails from ORV trails on private land to state lands to permit access to their facilities. This is reasonable in limited situations, provided that any proposed connector trail does not result in ORV trail networks on public lands, are subject to appropriate criteria for determining the need or appropriateness of a connector, and are sited, designed, and constructed in such a way to minimize the impact on the existing natural characteristics of our unique WV parks and forests.  

But there have been attempts to amend the bill to open public lands to Off-Road Vehicles. I urge all Delegates and Senators to oppose any expansion of motorized trails or Off-Road Vehicles on the public lands of WV, including all state parks, forests, wildlife management areas and rail trails.