Wall St. Journal: June 3, 2014



Push to Allow All-Terrain Vehicles on Public Roads Hits Speed Bumps

Effort to Help Riders Access Backcountry Trails Triggers Safety and Environmental Concerns

MEEKER, Colo.—When Katelin Cook wants to take a spin in the surrounding Rocky Mountains on her all-terrain vehicle, she just hops on the four-wheeler in her driveway and takes off—down a paved public road.

“What we’ll do is wake up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and say, ‘Let’s run up and let the dogs swim around,'” Ms. Cook, 28 years old, says of the ATV jaunts she and her husband, Deloy, take to places like Howey Reservoir about 30 miles away, a journey that includes 15 miles on county roads.

The Cooks can do this because Rio Blanco County, like at least 11 other counties in Colorado and a growing number across the U.S., has legalized the use of off-road vehicles on some public roads. In recent years, ATVs have been approved on streets and roads in states including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The trend is particularly prevalent in the West, where many rural counties have opened up hundreds of miles of public roads as part of a push by ATV enthusiasts to access backcountry trails without having to tow the vehicles there. But the movement is triggering safety and environmental concerns.

Accidents on public roads accounted for 368, or 44.7%, of 822 ATV-related deaths in the U.S. in 2007, the latest year for which complete data are available, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. According to the institute’s most recent study, ATV public-road fatalities fell to 305 in 2011 from a five-year high of 377 in 2008. There were 35 deaths on all roads in 1982, according to the institute, an industry nonprofit group.


“The evidence shows these are vehicles not designed to be driven on paved roads, which most public roads are,” said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the institute.

Manufacturers agree. The vehicles aren’t safe on public roads, in part because of the increased risk of colliding with a car or truck, and because they don’t meet U.S. highway safety standards, such as having rearview mirrors, according to the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an industry trade group. “One of our golden rules is not to ride on pavement,” said Kathy Van Kleeck, a spokeswoman.

Supporters of legalized road access report few safety issues. “People ride motorcycles all the time, and they are more vulnerable,” said Jerry Abboud, executive director of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, a nonprofit users group. Mr. Abboud said many of the roads open to ATVs—like those in Rio Blanco County—contain paved and unpaved sections and have lower speed limits than a highway. In most of the counties, ATVs have to be equipped with headlights and taillights, and riders must have a driver’s license.

“Regular use of great distance on paved roads—we don’t favor that at all,” he added.

Critics also worry that opening county roads to ATVs will make it easier for riders to reach untouched backcountry areas now off limits to motorized access. In lawsuits, environmental groups have presented evidence of ATV use damaging vegetation and historic structures.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management say a road for ATVs was illegally constructed several years ago in Utah’s Recapture Canyon, home to ancient pueblos and other artifacts. The agency closed the canyon to ATVs in 2007. In May, a group of ATV users rode into the canyon to protest the closure.

ATV enthusiast groups say claims of damage are exaggerated and they take care to protect the environment, such as by encouraging riders to stay on designated trails. “We are no greater impact on the environment than most other groups,” Mr. Abboud said.

One impetus for legalizing ATVs on public roads is tourism. Rio Blanco County officials say that is why they passed a 2012 ordinance approving them. The county of about 7,000 residents in northwestern Colorado has been in an economic funk following a decline in its oil and gas sector.

Working with the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM, the county set up the Wagon Wheel Trail System, linking 125 miles of off-road trails with 125 miles of county roads accessible from Meeker, which legalized ATVs on its streets. Riders flocked in, including to a new event, the White River OHV Rendezvous, which drew about 100 people in August. “I’ll bet we had half our rooms filled,” said Michele Morgan, owner of Meeker’s 22-room Elk Mountain Inn.

Uintah County in neighboring Utah legalized ATVs on some roads in 2012, as have some other counties in the state.

In Rio Blanco County, not everyone welcomes the new traffic. Dan Schwartz, owner of the Ripple Creek Lodge a few miles outside Meeker, said many of his guests are seeking solitude, which he said is being interrupted by the off-road vehicles. “There’s plenty of places to use ’em already,” said Mr. Schwartz, 39.

County Commissioner Jeff Eskelson said ATVs shouldn’t be disruptive in a county that is as large as Delaware and Rhode Island combined. “You could put 1,000 riders on these trails at one time and never cross a track,” he said.

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

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