Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use

On January 20, 2017, Alberta Environment and Parks announced the boundaries for the new Castle  Provincial Park and the expanded boundaries for the Castle Wildland Provincial Park in southwest Alberta. A draft management plan was also presented for public review. That plan calls for the phase-out of off-highway vehicle use in the parks. This is one of the most controversial sections of the plan but people who are concerned about the fate of the fish, wildlife and natural beauty of that area realize such a phase-out is necessary if we are going to keep what we go to wild areas to enjoy.

Guest Blog: I’ve asked fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch to post here a piece he wrote on the subject of off-highway vehicles for the Alberta Wilderness Association’s Wildlands Advocate in August of 2016. Regular readers here will remember Lorne’s piece he posted here in 2015 about Alberta’s  fisheries: Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish-Alberta’s Fisheries Crisis.

Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2016

Myths can be widely held but represent false beliefs or ideas. They can become more powerful and compelling than reality, especially if repeated often enough, and never challenged. Many use myths to support a particular action or activity. Listening to Off Highway Vehicle users for some time provides a recurring set of statements that fall into the category of myths. These are the prevalent ones:

Myth 1. It’s only 1% (or 3%, 5%, 10%…) of OHV users that cause problems.
OHV Trails-Willow CreekReality: It is the constant, unrelenting traffic on trails (and off trails) not designed for OHV use that is the major contributor to erosion, stream sedimentation, wildlife disruption and loss of quiet recreation. That includes everyone who operates an OHV.

Myth 2. OHV users know how to operate their machines to minimize impacts and be good stewards.
Reality: The sheer amount of damage and problem areas in the form of excessive erosion, ruts, mud holes, trail widening, avoidance of bridges, collapsed stream banks, following stream courses and multiple trail development suggests anything but stewardship. Many operate their machines in ways to magnify the damage.

Myth 3. OHV use has no more impact than foot and horse use.
OHV issuesReality: The argument OHVs exert no more pressure on the soil surface than a hiker or a horseback rider disappears under the impacts of OHV speed, spinning tires, wider trails and traffic volume. The linear orientation of OHV traffic disrupts drainage patterns, capturing and redirecting flow with increased erosion.

Myth 4. Fish and wildlife populations are not harmed by OHV use.
Reality: Thoroughly researched, objective, scientific studies say otherwise. Noise, traffic intensity and frequency, trail density, incursions into critical areas and increased sediment deposition in streams negatively impact fish and wildlife populations and their habitats.

Myth 5. The solution to the problems of OHV use includes more and better designed trails with bridges over streams.
Reality: Linear density (the measurement of trail length/ landscape area) already exceeds critical thresholds for many fish and wildlife species; building more trails will significantly harm fish and wildlife populations, several of which are already designated as “threatened”. More trails will intersect or parallel watercourses and require more bridges. Bridges do not successfully deal with sediment from trails since it is the approaches to stream crossings that continue to erode under OHV use.

Myth 6. Use of OHVs is a traditional, family-oriented pursuit that brings Albertans closer to nature.
OHV bogReality: While OHVs provide opportunity to access nature, to drive through (or over) nature there is no conclusive evidence their use connects people with nature. OHV use is a pursuit where people substitute gas engines for natural locomotion and distance themselves from the landscape with speed, technology and an obstacle-course mentality. Most seems activity focused, more so than using the machines to reach a destination, from which a direct connection is made with the landscape by walking. Activities like making new trails, racing, getting stuck, hill climbing, mud bogging, trashing wetlands and splashing through (and up) streams seem inconsistent with an appreciation for nature.

The phenomenon of OHV use is less than two decades old in Alberta, given that statistics on OHV ownership indicate relatively few people owned such machines even 15 years ago. Only 6% of Albertans engage in motorized recreational activity; 67% of Albertans have a preference for non-motorized outdoor recreation. Demographics suggest OHV users are more likely to be younger, male and single than a family group.

Myth 7. Other land uses (like logging) are more destructive that anything done by OHV users.
Logging OHV issuesReality: Resource extraction industries have created much of the access used by OHV users and the failure of government agencies to effect trail closure and restoration has exacerbated the issues. However, OHV use has never been considered and dealt with as a land use, complete with policy and regulation. In deflecting criticism from the impacts of OHV use, users fail to recognize cumulative effects and their contribution. OHV use can delay and prevent effective restoration and extends the life span of industrial impacts.

Myth 8. Educating OHV users will solve the problems.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

Reality: Education can be a tool for those that recognize the issues, want to change their behavior and don’t have a sense of entitlement to freely engage in destructive OHV activity. The education option assumes people want to be educated, that voluntary behavioral shifts are possible with no other inducements (like regulation and enforcement), that forums exist where OHV users can be educated and that all users can read and respond positively to signage.

Education is not a public relations exercise by OHV users to maintain the status quo; it is an endeavor to change attitudes and actions. Only a small percentage of OHV users are represented by an organization. Most users are beyond the influence of an organization and any educational initiative.

Studies indicate OHV users don’t want their use restricted, want fewer regulations, do not support user fees, enforcement and government involvement, and want to continue to pursue their recreation with less, not more impediments.

Myth 9. There is a recognition amongst OHV users of the impact of their activity.
One-Four, Allison CreekReality: OHV users become more conditioned to negative impacts over time, less sensitized to damage the activity creates, causing the detrimental effects of OHV activity to become less (not more) obvious and less (not more) concerning. It is a case of perceptual blindness, an inability (or unwillingness) to recognize and acknowledge the obvious.

Myth 10. OHV activity generates substantial economic benefits, especially to local communities.
Reality: While OHV dealers benefit from sales, there is no conclusive evidence local communities have enhanced and substantial economic activity because of OHV use.

Money spent on OHVs and their use is discretionary, unlike mortgage payments, grocery bills and taxes. If people don’t spend such money on OHVs the money isn’t lost, it is redirected somewhere else in the Alberta economy. Most of the money spent to purchase an OHV and accessories doesn’t linger in Alberta; it enriches corporations far from Alberta.

The assertion of economic benefits from OHV use always fails to account for costs, including more road maintenance, fire suppression, weed control, emergency services, medical expenses from injuries and loss of economic benefits from bona fide land uses like ranching, equestrian use and ecotourism. Nor do the “benefits” factor in enforcement costs, trail restoration, impacts on downstream water users and loss of biodiversity (including declining angling and hunting opportunity).

OHV activity also precludes other recreational pursuits and the associated economic benefits due to avoidance of areas by people seeking quiet recreation because of noise, real and perceived harassment, concerns of individual safety and loss of ecological integrity.

When our “enjoyment” of the landscape blinds us to the impairment occurring it is time to ask whether the activity is legitimate. Repeating the myths of OHV use, in the hope the messages will become convincing will require an unattainable magic. Substituting myth for fact isn’t viable and risks continuing the stereotyping of OHV users as uncaring, thoughtless and irresponsible. At its root, reality is consensual. When a group, like OHV users, makes up its mind what it is going to see, then sees it, it is a crowd delusion. OHV use will never, and should never, trump watershed protection, maintenance of fish and wildlife populations (especially threatened species) and quiet forms of recreation that reconnect people with nature.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

Lorne has also posted a guest blog on why OHV users might not understand the damage they do, Tracks and Spoor.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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19 Responses to Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use

  1. C. Hunt says:

    Glad to see Lorne’s excellent article about OHV destruction of fish habitat being given wide circulation. Myth # 8 has been repeatedly demonstrated by industries in our Eastern Slopes by the installation of hanging culverts that block fish passage and stop access to/from spawning and wintering areas. These damages were documented 30 years ago and have increased exponentially during the proliferate construction of industrial roads with no planning and seemingly no limits, despite three decades of ‘education’ about the damage to fish habitat.
    Same with the cumulative impacts of sediment from temporary streams that bear no fish but provide the water quality necessary for successful spawning & food production. Thousands of tiny tributaries (and road stream crossings) get no protection from industry and so-called ‘temporary’ roads continue to perpetuate damage from OHV users.
    In year 2000, approximately 4% of our lower foothills were protected by Park status and only 2% of the Upper Foothills. Surely Alberta can afford to protect the Castle and a few more small watersheds, unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
    Carl Hunt

  2. RJ Pisko says:

    Excellent observations and rationales, Lorne – I have spent ten years documenting (photographically) the abuse of the Castle Crown and subsequent damage to its ecology by OHV users. I’m convinced that it’s not just “a few bad guys” that are responsible for this outrage. It takes a lot more than “a few bad guys” to inflict the the damage I’ve seen and documented. Some of my stuff is on OWC’s blog . . . thanks for the hard work and professionalism.

  3. Brent Wilton says:

    I have used OHV’s in the back country of Alberta as well as Horseback and have seen bad apple’s in both groups. The back country does need to be respected and cared for, however I think there should still be areas where people can use and enjoy there OHV’s just as there are areas for horseback. I am disappointed in this particular article as it seems very one sided. It keeps claiming there is no proof, no proof that People who use OHV’s are enjoying nature etc. It also does not address the damage that logging does to the landscape compared to the OHV use. Logging Desacrates thousands of acres and coming from someone who spent alot of time in the back country I can tell you firsthand it is not a pretty sight, and stays that way for many years. Yes they will say they do studies and prevent silt from entering the watershed but that just isn’t the fact. I have personally seen oil contamination in mudholes just after logging and hydraulics leaks from the large industrial logging machines. So while people blame the destruction on OHV users they should look towards government and their lack of logging company activity/reclamation audits. I think that if OHV users want to continue to enjoy their back country they best “band” together otherwise the government will “ban” them.

  4. Carol Astalos says:

    My family, my sisters family, my mom and dad all use these trails and respect the land. 3 generations. It’s not single men who ride atvs. It’s families getting out and spending time together. Having a picnic and taking our garbage out with us. You’d rather turn it into a park and have a million tourists on the land.
    I totally disagree. Yes, we are looking for wildlife and not mud bogging as you say. Quit putting everyone in the same category who use the trails. We are families and not sitting in our house playing on our wii or Xbox. We have a right to use crown land. We pay the same taxes as you. We own property
    In the area and respect it. We pay property taxes. Yes, we do support
    the economy. Who else pays
    $10000.00 in property taxes a year.
    Do you want us all to leave the area?
    Who put in all the bridges? Cleans
    the trails? Brings equipment of our
    own to help with clean up.
    You are totally wrong on all points.
    We are families with kids. I have a 15 and 17 year old, I’m in my 40s, and my mom and dad over 60.
    You have no right to take it away from us.
    A few people make it look bad.
    One sided article as usual.
    We will fight on this until the end.

    • Ernst Lecocq says:

      Your shit hobby is detroying our land. Its not yours its ours and we have every right to rally and remove your PRIVALEDGE To destroy our land.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hey Ernest how do you get to our land what do you hike on when you are on our land? I bet it’s a trail or a road??? But I guess you should be the only one to be able to use that road or trail.bif this is truly OUR land then I guess we had better learn to share it so every one can enjoy our land!

  5. LJ says:

    The comments on this blog post are interesting. At the root of the matter is the idea of individual rights rather than collective responsibility. “It is my right to use OHVs” but what about MY right to explore the area without the noise pollution of, the exhaust fumes of, and the mess left by OHVs? Why do the rights of users of OHVs trump my rights to experience Nature’s unadulterated sounds: wind, birds, running water, even silence? And do the species of Nature (both plant and animal) that call this area home not have the right to exist undisturbed? (If not, then let’s for a minute contemplate if the situation was reversed and it was our home being invaded.). And, much, much more to the point, this area feeds the OldMan River which is the source of our drinking water — is that not an important consideration regarding the matter of how this space is used?

  6. Liz says:

    I just read your article and while some of your assessments of OHV may seem true, I tend to disagree.
    We have been OHV users for many years. We respect the land and stay on trails as not to make them worse.
    You also stated that most or all OHV users are single, young male. Your are not correct in that assumption at all. We and several FAMILIES we know have been OHV users as a family, and not just single males. We gave our children memories with camping and OHV use and had hoped to continue this for generations to come but you are not going to let that happen.
    And I would also like to state that the cattle that are in the forestry do more damage by the stream beds than OHV users do. The cattle leave such deep ruts that the stream beds have spread out and with the vegetation in the areas do not grow well.
    Your article is very biased and it’s very unfortunate that you haven’t spoken to more people who camp and respect the land.

    • Edmund Neilson says:

      Just because, anecdotally, you ride as a family and know other families does not change the fact that the demographic of OHV use is male dominated. In the USA, a demographic very similar to Canada, about twice as many males used OHVs compared to females.

      Source: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3843116.pdf

      Your second point, speaking to cattle, is true. Both activities, without question, cause significant damage to watersheds, and cattle likely more so. However, the difference arises in that one activity (cows) literally feeds Albertans and one activity (OHVs) serves to create a recreation activity that is disruptive to many natural processes, other users of the land, and is something that is relatively “new” in terms of its presence on the land. Grazing in grasslands and forest ecosystems is not new, and has been occurring, with many benefits for the landscape for millennia. Does more need to be done to reign in ranchers who overgraze the landscape? Yes, and generally, those of us in support of the castle are in support of that as well. For the benefit of the landscape, it makes far more sense to reduce the least important activity, which in this case, is OHV use. Hypothetically, if cattle grazing caused 70% of the damage to watersheds and OHV use caused 30%, a 30% reduction in watershed damage is, without a doubt, a good thing. This rings especially true with the pressure placed on our fisheries (a huge economic factor in Alberta I might add) by whirling disease, climate change, and aquatic invasive species.

      Sources: https://www.nps.gov/tapr/learn/nature/fire-and-grazing-in-the-prairie.htm

      http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/58830/2.5.Henrichs.pdf?sequence=1

      http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/csi12823

      As for your point “we stay on trails and don’t make it worse,” I would have to argue that you may have skipped over points in the article that mention how trail use inherently is disruptive. By being used, mud holes form, soil is compacted, and to avoid these spots, OHV users deviate from the middle of the trail and “widen” the trail. Noise from OHV engines, and habitat fragmentation caused by OHV trails are damaging to migrating wildlife such as caribou and, to a certain degree, elk. As a person who has driven OHVs in the Castle area, and elsewhere, I can speak first hand to having caused damage like this myself.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have witnessed the destruction of our forests from logging activity firsthand. Your suggestion that ohv users are responsible for damage to sensitive fish habitat is nonsense! The real culprit is logging. If you want to affect positive change, do some comprehensive research.

  8. Jamie says:

    What a great piece of discrimination by an elitist bigot!

  9. Anonymous says:

    When are we gonna start to deferentiate between motorbike and quads and side by side . Side by side should be banned from the trails,they are vehicles so they can use deactivated roads . Quads use quad trails and please leave single trails for bikes and horse just like montana system .

  10. Pingback: Tracks and Spoor | Don Meredith Outdoors

  11. Wayne says:

    Why don’t you people not get it,do you close your eyes when you see the pictures of the of the damage OHV’s make, get your head out of your ass!!! I was told once we have to share the forestry/public land, I don’t want to share it with people that want to destroy it, or are destroying it, 10 to 15 years ago we never had this problem, just like back country camping, why should you think that you can take your camp up and leave it there for the whole summer,I was told by a few people it’s there God given right. Something has to be done, the PC,s turned a blind eye & let it go on for to long, now it needs to be fixed, & not just the Castle.

  12. Gerald says:

    Carol Astalos, perhaps I’m missing your point, but I think what you are implying is that because you have used ATVs in the past, that you should have the right to use them forever, even if they have become a problem. That logic doesn’t work. It’s kind of like saying that because people used to be able to drink and drive we should still all be able to drink and drive – that’s crazy. Technology changes, demographic changes, social norm changes, etc, require changes in law and legislation. That’s kind of how life works. By the way, I’m curious to know what kind kind of OHV existed three generations ago.

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