Motorized off-road vehicles, from inexpensive dirt bikes to $100,000 Hummers, provide a sort of unfettered outdoor thrill ride, often in competitive mode. Groups representing off-roaders say their numbers now top 2 million. Families head out to the deserts or mountains for an activity that keeps even the teenagers in the family. For others it's a guy thing, with big toys and great scenery.
The knobby-tired vehicles also rip into wild areas, tearing up native plants and sometimes stripping soil to bedrock. Their engines shred the peace of hikers and campers and frighten animals into remote corners. The question is whether it's still possible to balance motorized fun and environmental preservation.
Many off-roaders spurn the park roads -- after all, the name of the pursuit is off-road -- to carve an estimated 60,000 miles of renegade trails in national forests. Last month, rangers in Northern California closed 300 acres of the Eldorado National Forest because human feces deposited by off-roaders were a public health hazard.
Off-roaders' visits to national forests have increased sevenfold in less than 30 years, and public land managers haven't kept up. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service finally gave official recognition to the damage caused by off-roading and proposed a rule to keep the vehicles on designated trails.