Who Wants More ATVs?

Californians are paying for a controversial plan to woo off-road vehicles

By Anrica Deb

April 29, 2021

ATV driven by a guy in a helmet, kicking up an enormous plume of dust.

Photo by 6okean | iStock

Inyo County has old-growth forests and pristine alpine lakes nestled between granite peaks that top 14,000 feet. Home to bears and marmots, this remote California county also boasts volcanic tablelands, high-elevation desert, and the oldest trees on Earth. Many endangered and threatened species live here, including mountain yellow-legged frogs, western yellow-billed cuckoo, desert tortoise, and the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. 

Congress and a presidential order have transformed sections of Inyo into “wilderness” nine times since 1964 and created the enormous Death Valley National Park. In 2019, the Dingell Act casually tacked on another 35,000 acres to Death Valley National Park’s boundaries.

Those moves have not been greeted with delight by a dedicated group of locals who see the ever-increasing protection of Inyo’s public lands as a threat to their dream of transforming the county into a tourist destination for fans of off-highway vehicles, also known as OHVs. 

They've fought to maintain OHV access and even to expand it. The result has been years of lawsuits, trips to the state legislature, and what many say are the longest and most contentious hearings ever to go before the Inyo Board of County Supervisors. It’s been a long, expensive struggle that wouldn’t be possible without the help of millions of dollars from a little-known but cash-rich California fund mostly skimmed from gas taxes that everyone pays at any California gas pump.

A dream born out of a recession 

“Our towns were boarding up,” says Randy Gillespie, who repairs OHVs and used to own a Honda and Yamaha motorcycle dealership in Bishop. During the financial crisis of the late 2000s, Gillespie and a group of other locals came up with an idea: If the county could develop OHV-accessible trails connecting Eastern Sierra towns like Independence, Lone Pine, and Bishop to the Inyo National Forest, BLM land, and campgrounds, people on ATVs and dirt bikes could drive in and out of town unhindered, without having to load and unload vehicles from a trailer. Ideally, this enticement would bring in throngs of tourists, and their tourist dollars. They called the dream “Adventure Trails of the Eastern Sierra.” 

Riders drew up a plan to connect pre-existing trails—used by OHVs, horses, bicyclists, and hikers—to 72 public roads and presented it to the board of supervisors. The board liked the idea.

It’s not easy to get street legal

There was a problem with the plan. It was illegal. While California state law allows local governments to categorize roads as long as three miles as “mixed-use,” which means that OHVs would be allowed, the Adventure Trails network included roads that were much longer.

OHV is an umbrella term that includes ATVs, UTVs (a.k.a. utility task vehicles), snowmobiles, unregistered pickup trucks, and dirt bikes. Because they aren’t allowed on paved roads, they pay only token vehicle registration fees—$26 per year—and aren’t required to carry insurance. You don’t need a license to drive one. Kids as young as 14 can get a safety certificate and ride without supervision in national forests and other public lands. Kids 13 and under can ride with an adult supervising, as long as the kid is tall enough to reach the controls. 

One reason that it’s difficult to get the state to allow OHVs to use public roads is that OHVs are, in no way, designed for—or tested on—paved roads. They often lack basic safety features like seatbelts or turn signals. Helmets are not required. More than 15,000 people have died in OHV accidents since records have been kept, mostly on roads where they aren’t designed to go. 

Many of those who have been killed were children. In 2019, four boys died in two OHV accidents in Southern California. The drivers of the vehicles were 10 and 13 years old, respectively. That same year, six adults died in separate incidents at a California OHV park called Oceano Dunes.

A permission slip from the state

Undeterred by state law, boosters of the Adventure Trails persuaded the Inyo Board of Supervisors to ask legislators in Sacramento for an exemption. Sacramento obliged with Assembly Bill 628, which would grant Inyo County the ability to allow OHVs on roads as long as 10 miles. The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, Desert Protective Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility all opposed the bill, on the grounds that increased OHV traffic would endanger plants and wildlife on public lands. In 2011, the legislature passed it. 

Immediately, new obstacles to the Adventure Trails plan emerged. Hundreds of people—for and against—wrote everything from thoughtful, well-reasoned letters to hyperbolic screeds to the board of supervisors and anyone else that would listen. Furthermore, some residents did not want loud, dusty vehicles driving by their houses. So Inyo threw out the most controversial routes, primarily those going through residential neighborhoods, and whittled the 72 proposed road segments down to 38.

By California law, Inyo County next had to complete an environmental impact review for those 38 proposed routes, in keeping with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. That requirement might have terminated the plan, since a CEQA review could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Instead, when I visited Randy Gillespie’s OHV repair shop in downtown Bishop, he had the CEQA review right there, completed in 2014. “Here’s our environmental document,” he said slapping an inches-thick binder onto the counter in front of me. “This is about a $250,000 document.”

The million-dollar dune-buggy fund

Gillespie told me the “user group,” the people riding OHVs, paid for the CEQA review. That is a little bit true; user fees did pay some of the binder, but probably less than 20 percent of it. That binder was paid for by a state grant, which required Inyo County to provide matching funds for 26 percent of the total cost. The rest came from the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Fund. The fund owes its existence to a deal made in the 1970s, when California was rewriting the rules on what people could do on state land. As a concession to OHV users who were losing access to certain wildlands, California launched the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division, which, according to its mission statement, would serve to “acquire, develop, and operate state-owned vehicular recreation areas” as well as “balance OHV recreation impacts with programs that conserve and protect cultural and natural resources.” 

In 2020, the OHV fund took in $75 million. According to the state budget, about $20 million of that came from OHV registration and Park Service fees. Almost $53 million came from gas taxes paid by all Californians. Since nobody tracks how much gasoline is bought in California specifically to fuel OHVs, the state instead guesses an amount every year, based on the overall amount of state gas taxes collected—$55 billion in 2020—and the number of registered OHVs in the state. The more gas tax Californians all pay each year, regardless of whether we drive a dirt bike or a school bus, the more money the OHV fund gets. 

That money is then dispersed across the state, via a grant application process, to parks, federal lands, cities and counties, and law enforcement in areas where OHVs are permitted.

Since 2010, Inyo National Forest received almost $9.4 million for acquiring, developing, and maintaining OHV recreation areas. Specifically, that could include purchasing OHVs for rangers, printing maps, monitoring erosion, maintaining roads, removing trash, cleaning campground bathrooms, and public outreach. Another $2.7 million went to restoring land damaged by OHV traffic, which could include planting native vegetation, trying to hide or block off access to illegal roads created by OHV drivers, and monitoring restored areas.

Unfortunately, the US Forest Service does not have the park staff to put that $2.7 million in restoration money to work. I asked Nathan Sill, resources and planning staff officer for Inyo National Forest, about how much the agency does to fix damage caused by off-road use. Sill pointed out that he and a staff of eight were responsible for managing all natural resources in 2 million acres of national forest land, including timber, mapping, fisheries, and mining. “Where we’re committing resources is primarily around fuels management and timber management,” says Sill. “Right now, the primary focus of our agency is dealing with the catastrophic potential of fire.” The Forest Service instead passes on restoration money to organizations like Friends of the Inyo, who actually do the work.

Cheaper than taking the kids to Disneyland

Trying to stop damage before it happens would avoid the need for restoration, but doing so is like playing whack-a-mole on 2 million acres spread unevenly over an area nearly the size of Massachusetts The remoteness and low population density of the Eastern Sierra are part of its beauty, but it also makes it nearly hopeless to catch people in the act of behaving badly. The basic rules for causing the least harm on public lands: Stay on the allowed trails, don’t make new trails, don’t drive too fast, don’t be extremely loud, don’t drive at night. I have personally witnessed all these rules being broken without repercussion by OHV drivers, though, to be fair I have also seen bicyclists, fishermen, and climbers breaking rules too. While the first rider to go off-road might realize they’re breaking the rules, the trails they create can easily be mistaken for legitimate roads by other riders. Some residents fear that, without more enforcement of the current rules, any increase in OHVs will make BLM and Forest Service land look like the set of Mad Max. 

When riders leave established roads, they can damage more than they can see. Vehicles damage plants living on the surface, but, even worse, their tires leave ruts that can channel water away from historical flows, potentially destroying meadows and amphibian populations that are unable to relocate quickly when their water source moves. Precipitation is limited in Inyo; water that keeps plants and other species alive in the summer comes from springs and snowmelt, so watershed patterns are critical.

The sound limit for OHVs is a whopping 101 decibels in Inyo National Forest, similar to listening to a jet engine take off from 1,000 feet away. California state law limits regular street motorcycles to only 80 decibels. Because decibels are on an exponential scale, 101 decibels is 125 times as loud as 80 decibels.

If an off-roader does get caught breaking a rule, any ticket might still be worth the fun. The fine for building an unauthorized trail in Inyo National Forest is $250. Riding on a trail that’s not designated for OHV’s: $150. On Bureau of Land Management public lands, violating off-road regulations is $150. Resource or environmental damage is $250. That is, as one off-roader told Ileene Anderson, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, “less than the price of taking my family to Disneyland.” 

That some users find the risks worthwhile was abundantly clear when I visited Inyo National Forest last fall with Ceal Klingler, a biologist who lives next to the Buttermilks, beautiful granite boulders that transition into the John Muir Wilderness as the altitude increases behind Grouse Mountain. We met up at the national forest boundary, and, as we planned our route, eight motorbikers passed us. “I’m so tired of picking up flattened baby horned lizard bodies,” Klingler said. Dirt bikers fly by Klinger’s home daily on their way to and from the national forest, she said. 

Klingler wanted to show me a restoration area, where volunteers had repaired vehicle tracks and laid out rocks to prevent new trail building. As we neared the restored area, we saw the eight bikers again. They had joined possibly the most elaborate campsite I have ever seen: two large toy haulers, a full liquor bar, motorbikes and trucks everywhere. Directly next to the restoration project, a new looped route had been scraped out of the landscape, and the dirt bikers were using it like a race track.

The bikers took off before we reached them, leaving their generator running, unsupervised out in the sagebrush. When we returned and passed the campsite again hours later, it was dark and the riders were off their dirt bikes and warming themselves around a huge bonfire.

That was November 2020. Smoke from the 380,000-acre Creek Fire in neighboring Sierra National Forest had shut all the national forests in California to visitors that summer and fall. Our local air quality index here in Bishop topped 500 several times, turning the sky a sickening orange and trapping everyone without N95 masks indoors. Inyo National Forest had reopened, but the Creek Fire still hadn’t been fully contained. I wasn’t sure if a bonfire was allowed, and I was very sure the new loop route was illegal. So, I asked the Forest Service.

“There’s nothing illegal about their campsite, their group size, their camp fire, etcetera,” Inyo National Forest Service public affairs officer Deb Schweizer told me in a phone message. She said that law enforcement had spoken with the group already and done a patrol of the area.

“They did see a lot of dirt bikers, but none of them were breaking the rules while they were out there,” Schweizer added, “which is often the case with law enforcement.” Even if the Forest Service does catch someone breaking rules, Schweizer said, enforcement prefers educating visitors over giving citations. 

I asked Schweizer how many warnings and citations are given out, or for any data about how behavior is trending, better or worse. Schweizer said that the USFS law enforcement won’t give out that information. So I sent a Freedom of Information Act request, which requires a response within 20 business days. Months later, I’m still waiting. 

A long history

“If anyone is an environmentalist, it’s me,” said Randy Gillespie, when I talked to him at his repair shop. He says he volunteers doing restoration and graffiti removal on public lands and educates OHV drivers on how to be more responsible. He thinks that access needs to be maintained and that damage caused by OHVs can be mitigated with a route system and a map, to “put 'em in places they do belong and keep them out of places they don’t belong.” Gillespie believes OHVs are the scapegoat for frustration with badly behaved visitors to public lands. He thinks there’s such a thing as too much protection when it comes to the Eastern Sierra. “We don’t believe in more wilderness,” he said.

Gillespie is far from alone in this feeling. When the state and federal government has restricted vehicle access, Inyo County government has pushed back, often at great expense to itself. When most of Death Valley got its wilderness designation, roads were closed in places that some OHV and four-wheel-drivers liked to visit. In 2005, Inyo County sued, using a repealed, Civil War–era law created for mining, to claim access to Surprise Canyon, a once-popular OHV spot near an abandoned ghost town on the western side of Death Valley. By 2007, the county pushed harder, bringing lawsuits to get access to other “roads,” like Lost Section Road and Last Chance Road. 

With the support of OHV groups eager to use them, the county claimed that those roads—which could never be navigated by a sedan or any normal mode of travel—were actually "highways," even if they “required, in several places, the use of winches and impromptu rock ramps to help drivers get over waterfalls,” as reporter Kurt Repanshek wrote in the National Parks Traveler. It’s not clear what the county would have done if those roads in Death Valley became “highways,” since off-highway vehicles would have, by definition, been forbidden to go there. Regardless, judges repeatedly threw out the cases, finally finishing them off in 2012.

In 2007, the Inyo Board of Supervisors unanimously opposed the California Wild Heritage Act, which proposed turning several areas of Inyo National Forest into wilderness areas, where OHVs would not be allowed. An incredible 115 people spoke at a single meeting about the wilderness designations in the Eastern Sierra, according to the official minutes. In contrast to the board of supervisors' unanimous decision to oppose the act, 59 of the people who showed up for public comment, or just over half, spoke in support of new wilderness areas.

A few bad eggs

The number of registered OHVs in California has actually declined more than 20 percent from 10 years ago, from 962,670 registered OHVs in 2010 to 755,036 in 2020. And yet, misbehavior appears to be increasing. According to Death Valley National Park, the number of people caught driving off-road in the park has increased each year over the past six years, reaching 61 citations for off-roading last year. Rangers also found about 59 miles of illegal tracks made in Death Valley last year.

In public lands farther south in Imperial and San Bernardino Counties, where OHV tourism is much more common, law enforcement has noted similar increases. In Morongo Basin, near Joshua Tree National Park, the calls for service involving OHVs have tripled in two years, as reported by the San Bernardino police. 

According to Ileene Anderson, the senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, aerial and ground surveys of the western Mojave conducted by the BLM found 9,000 miles of illegal OHV routes, far more than the 6,000 miles of legal ones.

In an application for grant money, police in the western Mojave said they issued 40 drug and alcohol citations, nine lost or missing person investigations, two battery citations, 27 warrant citations, 26 medical calls with law enforcement response, 12 driver’s license violations, three firearm violation warnings, four driving under the influence arrests, three reckless driving citations, 34 vehicle registration violations, two firework citations, 38 safety violations—like double riding—one narcotics arrest, and hundreds of warnings during a single 2018 OHV event, King of Hammers. 

From seventy-two to seven. Plus a tenth of a mile.

In 2015, with the CEQA review completed, Inyo County jettisoned even more of the roads on the Adventure Trails list. The board of supervisors unanimously agreed to open seven public roads to OHVs on a trial basis.

Immediately, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the county, on the grounds that their environmental review—that $250,000 binder—was improperly done. The county and the CBD reached a settlement to proceed soon after, giving CBD the right to contest the county’s environmental review document again if the county expanded its program beyond seven roads.

Both the proponents and opponents of the Adventure Trails program feel the data collected as part of the trial program is not enough. There has been no record of impact on BLM and forest land, because nobody kept any records. There is no measurable economic benefit to downtown Bishop, because the seven mixed-use roads that were finally permitted do not actually allow OHV users to drive into town.

At the end of 2018, the Inyo Sheriff’s Department and CalTrans stated there were no accidents or complaints related to the Adventure Trails program. The dataset ignored a 2017 fatal collision between two OHV riders on Black Rock Springs Road, a public road where OHVs are not permitted, about 11 miles from one of the approved Adventure Trails project roads. One person died, and the other two had major injuries, according to the Inyo Register. Nobody was using helmets or seatbelts. 

Let’s add more roads

Inyo County Department of Public Works won two more grants for the Adventure Trails program from the California OHV fund in 2015 and 2016, totaling $1.3 million, because it was “unable to locate a right of way or easement” for almost half of the proposed combined-use routes, according to the county’s grant application. Many Inyo roads are under hazy jurisdiction: Nobody remembers who owns them but the county government maintains them anyway. For the full 38 routes in Adventure Trails to work, the county had to formalize its right of way. 

The county focused on 17 segments under questionable jurisdiction. After much pushback from various organizations and locals, and a grab bag of problems that ranged from the Dingell Act to the fact that one road was on Paiute land, Inyo was left with easements on only two segments, granted at the end 2020 by the Forest Service: the first part of Death Valley Road and a 10th of a mile of County Road, which leads to the popular Keough Hot Springs. Most of County Road is on county land already, so adding a tiny segment was hardly a victory.

The Death Valley Road, also called the Northern Inyo Range Area in the Adventure Trails plan, is the only way to drive to Eureka Dunes, a remote canyon with the tallest sand dunes in North America. In the 1970s, before Death Valley’s boundaries were expanded by the California Desert Protection Act, off-roaders nearly wiped out two plant species there. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently delisted the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica ssp. Eurekensis), and the Eureka dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae) has been downlisted from endangered to threatened based on recovery of these endemic populations after off-highway vehicles were banned in the late 1970s,” wrote Mike Reynolds, superintendent of Death Valley National Park, in a March 2020 letter to Erin Noesser, environmental coordinator for Inyo National Forest. “Any increase in OHV driving in this area could lead to relisting of both of these species,” Reynolds warned. 

That kind of stiff resistance led to Inyo County dropping its mixed-use proposal for Death Valley Road, at least for now. But plans for opening other roads to OHVs are still moving ahead. 

“From Public Works (including myself) we currently have over 600 hours to bill to this project and growing daily,” wrote John Pinckney, Inyo’s transportation planner, to me in an email. He said it also required 52 hours from county lawyers and more than 100 hours from the Inyo County Planning Department. Getting easements on the two roads used about $160,000 of county money and roughly $458,000 from the OHV fund. 

Undeterred by years of setbacks and the price tag, Randy Gillespie told me he plans to present perhaps 20 more “mixed-use” routes to the board of supervisors this year. “I’m very passionate about this—maintaining our recreation for future generations,” Gillespie said. If he gets his way, Pinckney will be back to the drawing board.