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Environmental Impacts of Off-Road Vehicle Races and Events: A Literature Review
Previous Road RIPorter Biblio Notes have examined the impacts of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on various segments of an ecosystem, providing a great deal of knowledge on these impacts. In reviewing these articles, it is evident that scientific research has focused on the general impacts of single all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), but little has been done to assess the impacts of large-scale off road events, such as races or jamborees. Herein I review the available literature and government reports on large-scale off road events’ impacts on the environment.
Most of the research and discussion of the impacts of large-scale ORV events occurs in the form of environmental impact analyses conducted in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and similar state policies (e.g., BLM 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2010). In contrast to these assessments, in 1994, in response to the Mojave desert tortoise’s listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) examined the effects ATV/ORV races would have on tortoise habitat. At that time there were nine races permitted for operation by the Las Vegas field office. Two draft technical reports by the BLM considered two of these races as case studies for all those previously permitted, instead of taking a race-by-race look at impacts (Medica 1994a, 1994b).
The two reports are similar in scope and findings. One event, the “Twilight 200,” was a 43-mile truck and buggy race; while the other, the Nelson Hills ATV/Motorcycle race, was a shorter motorcycle and ATV lap race. Medica (1994a) found that race participants had “some minimal impact upon the desert habitat” (pg. 21, Medica 1994a), and that the course itself was not widened significantly. Most of the damage was done by ancillary activities that occurred during the race, with spectators following or observing the race from areas just off the race course. The use of areas outside the race course by spectators may have far reaching impacts in other race events as well. Medica (1994b) found that as much as 19 hectares (48 acres) per linear mile of racer course were affected by the presence of spectators of the “Twilight 200.” Medica (1994b) found 25 shrubs directly damaged by tracks off the race course in hilly subarea transects. When extrapolated over the 13km race course there would be 255 damaged or destroyed shrubs.
Off-road vehicle events — and the spectators they attract — can have a profound impact on arid ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.
A more recent BLM NEPA document prepared for the three day, 995-mile truck, ATV and motorcycle race known as “The Vegas to Reno Race,” spent little time identifying potential impacts, but did contain a larger discussion on the amount of dust created during the race (BLM 2009). Inhalable particulates are those that can be breathed into the lungs and can affect respiratory and circulatory functions. In this report the BLM acknowledged that there would be an environmental impact and acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency’s generic emission factor recommendation for calculating the amount of fugitive dust created (USEPA 2005) is not adequate in desert areas like the location of this race. The BLM in this case used a method of estimation provided in Goossens and Buck (2009) and found that the Vegas to Reno Race would likely emit between 23.2 and 39.3 metric tons of dust in the PM10 classification (particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter). Furthermore it was estimated that 118 to 331 metric tons of PM60 would be emitted during the race. PM60 (particles less than 60 micrometers) represents the total suspendable particles. Despite this large amount of dust released and the known human health impacts, the EA stated in its monitoring and mitigation section that, “the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, Air Pollution Control may monitor the ORV race events to observe the production of PM10 fugitive dust” (pg. 35, BLM 2009). Fugitive dust can have large impacts on the surrounding vegetation, air quality, and soil structure (Ouren et al. 2007). Not to mention the possible impacts of visitors/spectators outside of the race course.
All three events discussed above were permitted for racing. Very little mitigation or monitoring was stipulated in permits, and it is unclear how much mid-race or post-race monitoring was conducted by the BLM. The BLM has denied permit applications before, though in the instance I found, it was for previous permit violations and not potential impacts. In 2011 the BLM Las Vegas field office denied a special recreation permit to the Southern Nevada Off- Road Enthusiasts (SNORE) for their 2011 Midnight Special based on previous safety violations, resource damage outside the race course, and violations of their race permit stipulations (clean up, flaggers, etc) (BLM 2011). It will be important for the BLM to step up its post race monitoring of races, as it seems that it may be the visitor-induced damage that is most neglected in their assessments. If the BLM will not do this, due to limited staff, budgets or priority, it may be up to organizations in the areas of these yearly races to monitor impacts and report them to BLM.
The Forest Service also allows ATV use and conducted a study across seven sites representing seven regions of the country (Meadows et al. 2008). The major finding of this study was that
with just a few additional ATV passes, a trail can transition from a low to medium or medium to high disturbance level. For example, with 20-40 passes, across all study areas, the trails transitioned to medium disturbance and all sites transitioned to high disturbance after 120 passes by ATVs (40 passes for the lowest transition). These numbers are similar to many of the race sizes seen in the Environmental Assessments (EAs) conducted by the BLM.
Many of the environmental reviews that were conducted prior to issuing race event permits stated that there would be no significant environmental impacts. These were usually due to what they considered “short term” effects, such as wildlife or bird disturbance or noise pollution. The assessments also approved permitting because most races and events were on previously established courses, or contained only small new sections. This argument would be a legitimate argument if riders and spectators remained on the course. It is important to remember that designating a route does not preclude riders from leaving the course, though permits usually stipulate against it. Shortcutting and breakdowns are likely to occur and can cause significant damage to off course habitats. In one ATV recreation area in Utah there was an increase of 885 trail segments and an increase in density of 1122m/km2 of new unplanned routes from 1977 to 1997 (Dunfee 2008).
Mass-off-road events are often billed as “family friendly,” giving children an introduction to the sport. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.
It is evident, through the review of the available literature, technical reports, and environmental assessment analysis that the impacts of large-scale ORV events are not well understood. Research has shown the various and wide-ranging impacts that general ORV use can have on an environmental system, but the extension of these impacts to the larger scale events have not been done. Most evident is the lack of focus on possible course widening and environmental damage due to vehicles out of bounds and visitors/spectators lining courses. Most Environmental Assessments, conducted in large portion by the Bureau of Land Management, focus directly on the racing vehicles themselves and not the ancillary activities of pit crews, support personnel, and visitors/spectators.
The current mitigation measures used in EAs and permit stipulations are weak and inadequate at controlling direct and indirect impacts to the ecosystems in which these races are held. Opportunities abound for researchers and non-profits to help understand these impacts better. GPS units could be placed on each vehicle in a race, not only to assess impacts of those leaving the course, but to provide a context for punishing course cutting. Visitors and spectators can be restricted to certain, previously developed locations. Currently most permits make no such restrictions or stipulations. Further research is needed to understand these spectator impacts given most of the research available is almost 20 years old and new techniques and resources have become available.
— Jeremiah is a University of Montana Environmental Studies Student. For his thesis he is examining the effectiveness of highway wildlife crossing structures.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 2008. Environmental Assessment, Bushwackers Motorcycle Race. US Department of Interior. 34pp.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 2008. Environmental Assessment, SNORE Truck and Buggy Race. US Department of Interior. 32pp.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 2009. Environmental Assessment, BITD “TSCO Vegas to Reno – The Long Way”. US Department of Interior. 32pp.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 2010. Environmental Assessment, Gold Diggers Motorcycle Club Competitive Event. US Department of Interior. 35pp
BLM (Bureau of Land Management). 2011. Decision, 2011 Midnight Special, Special Recreation Permit Denied. Las Vegas Field Office, US Department of Interior. 4pp.
Dunfee, S. 2008. Evolution of ORV trails in the Little Sahara Recreation Area, Utah, 1952-1997. MA Thesis, Ohio University, Athens, OH.
Goossens, D. and B. Buck. 2009, Dust Emission by Offroad Driving: Experiments on 17 Arid Soil Types, Nevada, USA, in Geomorphology, vol. 107, issues 3-4, pp. 118-138.
Meadows, D, R.B Foltz, N. Geehan. 2008. Effects of All Terrain Vehicles on Forested Lands. USDA Forest Service, San Dimas Technology and Development Center. 0823 1811-SDTDC
Medica, P.A. 1994a. The effects of an ATV/Motorcycle OHV race upon course widening. SNARE, Nelson Hills ATV/Motorcycle race, December 5, 1993. National Biological Survey Draft Report to Bureau of Land Management. 18pp + 3 Appendices.[Technical Report]
Medica, P.A. 1994b. Study of an off-highway vehicle race in Eldorado Valley “Twilight 200” March 27, 1993. Bureau of Land Management Draft Report. 29pp [draft Technical Report]
USEPA (US Environmental Protection Agency), 2005. Compilation of air pollutant factors (AP42), Volume I: Stationary point and area sources, Chapter 13: Miscellaneous Sources (updated November 2006), fifth edition, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, variable pagination.