Off Road Vehicles and ATV Regulation

All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), commonly referred to as four-wheelers, and other Off Road Vehicles (ORVs or Off-Highway Vehicles – OHVs) are facing increasing regulatory pressures. The growing popularity of these recreational vehicles has resulted in grassroots movements to protect sensitive, natural areas from intrusion by ORVs. These vehicles can easily inflict damage to the landscape and there is also an emerging issue related to safety, children and ORVs.

Withpublic opinion on the side of reasonable environmental protection and safety, the debate boils down to a discussion on how much regulation is too much when it comes to limiting the access of ORVs to our public lands.

Authority Issues:

California Wilderness Coalition has a nice section of their web site devoted to information on a section of the RS 2477 Statute that was part of the Mining Act of 1866. The legislation was enacted at a time when road-building was essential to economic expansion. It reads in its entirety: “The right-of-way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.”

Congress repealed this frontier-era statute in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) but grandfathered valid right-of-way claims pre-dating the repeal. Title V of FLPMA established the rules and procedures under which the Bureau of Land Management(BLM) could henceforth grant such rights-of-way and was presumably intended by Congress to supplant RS 2477.

Many still view the antiquated statute as a means to claim rights-of-way across our national parks, forests, wilderness, and other public lands. These claimants try to use RS 2477 to keep open existing routes without multiple-use planning, and to re-open areas to which motorized access has been restricted or closed.

See the CWC Web Site’s Section on RS2477 for a full discussion of this issue and how the Bush Administration is currently creating new rules and policies to facilitate RS 2477 claims as a way to release public land from federal jurisdiction.

Environmental Issues:

Of primary concern to many activists and organizations that are pushing for more rules governing ORVs is that their use is splintering the landscape into a disorganized and destructive web of trails and roads. They point to severe impacts to the soil, the spread of invasive plant seeds, and the disruption to sensitive and endangered wildlife as cause for regulatory intervention. Insufficient enforcement of existing regulations have resulted in thousands of miles of unauthorized routes across the landscape.

Specific policy changes that groups recommend generally intend to restrict use of ORVs to legally designated routes (that are specifically posted as open for use) and to eliminate the use of off-road vehicles within roadless and other ecologically sensitive areas. The designated routes must be established only after a regulatory agency can demonstrate that the use of ORVs will not cause adverse environmental impacts.

Safety Issues:

The Consumer Federation of America, Natural Trails and Waters Coalition, Bluewater Network and doctors have called for new national and state rules to stop the increasing number of ATV-related injuries and fatalities. Their report, All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Safety Crisis: America’s Children at Risk, finds that the ATV industry’s self-regulatory approach to safety, with minimal government oversight, fails to protect consumers – particularly children.

The report included a series of recommendations, many of which have been developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other health care professionals, that will better protect children, and every rider of an ATV:

  1. No child under 16 should be allowed to operate ATVs under any circumstances
  2. Every state should adopt model legislation developed by the AAP concerning licensing, training, and other aspects of ATV safety
  3. The Consumer Safety Products Commission (CSPC) should ban the use of adult-size ATVs by children under the age of 16 and require manufacturers to provide refunds for all three-wheel ATVs and adult-size four-wheel ATVs purchased for use by children under 16.

Natural Trails and Waters Coalition offers the following statistics:

  • By the most conservative estimates, there are at least 11 million dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, and jet skis in the United States, and they can go almost everywhere on our nation’s public lands and waters.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 264 million acres of public land across the west and in Alaska. Nearly 93 percent of this land in the continental U.S. is open in some form to off-road vehicles.
  • In Utah, 94 percent of BLM land – more than 22 million acres – is open to dirt bikes, ATVs and jeeps. In Montana and Nevada, off-road vehicles can access 99 percent of all BLM land.
  • America’s National Forests are criss-crossed by more than 400,000 miles of roads and routes. At least 60,000 additional miles of “ghost roads” have been blazed, largely by off-road vehicles.
  • In the entire National Forest system – covering more than 190 million acres in 155 forests, only 2 forests, the Hoosier in Indiana and the Monongahela in West Virginia, do not allow off-road vehicle use.

The Public Supports Common Sense Limits

Off-road vehicle use on public lands will surely be an important and controversial issue in the coming years. Communities, states and the Federal goverment all have a potential role in balancing the interests of environmental protection and safety with personal freedom and rights to access our public lands. Here are a selection of the best web resources that we could find on the subject.


  • The State Environmental Resource Center has a model state bill for regulating ORVs.
  • MN Laws 2003 – Chapter 128 [Omnibus Environment, Natural Resources, Agriculture, Economic Development and Housing Appropriations Bill]
    This law increased the restrictions on the use of off-highway vehicles, which include off-highway motorcycles, off-road vehicles (commonly known as 4x4s), and all-terrain vehicles. It requires an operator certificate for operation of off-highway vehicles on public lands. It also provides civil citation authority for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to enforce off-highway vehicle laws, limits off-highway vehicle operation on state lands to designated routes and expands the purposes for which money in dedicated off-highway vehicle accounts can be spent to include more enforcement, restitution for property damage, and increased grants-in-aid for local safety and maintenance programs.Unfortunately, in 2005 the law was gutted and instead of protecting a large swath of Minnesota from OHVs, provisions now allowed OHVs to ride off-trail in areas north of U.S. Highway 2, which affects 74 percent of total state forest lands. The 2003 law said:

    Sec. 21. [84.777] [OFF-HIGHWAY VEHICLE USE OF STATE LANDS RESTRICTED.] (a) Except as otherwise allowed by law or rules adopted by the commissioner, effective June 1, 2003, notwithstanding sections 84.787 to 84.805 and 84.92 to 84.929, the use of off-highway vehicles is prohibited on state land administered by the commissioner of natural resources, and on county-administered forest land within the boundaries of a state forest, except on roads and trails specifically designated and posted by the commissioner for use by off-highway vehicles.
    (b) Paragraph (a) does not apply to county-administered and within a state forest if the county board adopts a resolution that modifies restrictions on the use of off-highway vehicles on county-administered land within the forest.


  • Blue Water Network has a section on ORVs
  • California Wilderness Coalition has a Defense of the Wild Program
    From the deserts of southern California to northern California’s ancient forests, scenic and ecologically invaluable places are threatened by logging, oil exploration, off-road vehicle usage, mining, and other unwise uses. The California Wilderness Coalition’s Defense of the Wild Program champions the protection of these de facto wilderness areas. These lands are of immeasurable value as wild habitat, yet are not protected from development. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service manage more than forty million acres in California. Yet protected wilderness makes up only a fraction of that land. The rest of it can be logged, roaded, mined, or otherwised degraded.
  • Natural Trails and Waters Coalition
    The Natural Trails and Waters Coalition works to protect and restore all public lands and waters from the severe damage caused by dirt bikes, jet skis and all other off-road vehicles. Our website is designed to be a resource for the media, activists, and others wanting to know more about the impacts of off-road vehicles on natural resources, wildlife, and public health and safety.
  • Sierra Club
    The Sierra Club has many of their local chapters working on ATV and ORV issues, just search their site for ATV and you’ll find many resources to choose from.
  • State Environment Resource Center has a section on Innovative State ORV Legislation
  • Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads has a section on ORVs
    Wildlands CPR envisions a tapestry of interconnected roadless wildlands where surrounding human residents would understand that their well-being is inextricably linked to the health of these wildland ecosystems. Removing roads and limiting motorized recreation are key steps to restoring nature to a healthy and functioning whole.
  • The Wilderness Society has a section on ORV’s and a section titled, Off-Road Vehicles and Public Lands: Balanced Policy Needed
    The Wilderness Society notes that tens of millions of Americans visit public lands and waters every year to experience scenic wonders, our rich cultural heritage, and the naturalness and solitude of our last remaining Wilderness areas. Americans understand that there must be a balance between different types of users of lands and waters. Indeed, our system of public lands, the most diverse in the world, was developed with that balance in mind. But we are losing that balance today as dirt bikes, snowmobiles, jet skis, and other off-road vehicles push further and further into the backcountry, causing pollution and other impacts on our public lands, and displacing other visitors. Citizens nationwide support common-sense limits on off-road vehicles to protect public lands and waters, wildlife, other recreational experiences, and public health and safety.
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a section on ORVs
  • Field Guide to Off-Road Vehicles: ORVs you can find on your public lands and waters – Natural Trails and Waters Coaltion
  • Taken For A Ride: How Off-Road Vehicles Damage the Nation’s Wildest Lands – The Wilderness Society, 2003
  • All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Safety Crisis: America’s Children at Risk – Consumer Federation of America, 2002

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