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Off-road vehicles rev up controversy in public lands

A coalition of former public land managers and veteran rangers is sounding the alarm.

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Off-road vehicles now pose the single biggest threat to America's public lands and represent a fast-growing law enforcement problem.

That's the verdict of a new coalition of former public land managers and rangers, which has formed to bring attention to the problem.

Understaffing, weak penalties, and lack of enforcement of trail restrictions, among other problems, have led to environmental degradation and an increasingly chaotic environment at many popular federal recreation areas that are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of off-road-vehicles (ORVs), the coalition says.

"These things are just crawling all over the place, unregulated, damaging the environment and wreaking havoc - there's no teeth in any law enforcement," says Jim Baca, a member of the Rangers for Responsible Recreation coalition and a former director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the Clinton Administration. "Congress needs to look at this and make sure public land agencies are doing their job."

BLM officials acknowledge the rising numbers of ORVs, but insist the problem is under control.

Use of ORV is legal on designated roads and trails across more than 80 million acres of land overseen by the BLM and millions more overseen by the US Forest Service. But ORV use, especially in the western US, has zoomed off trails into fragile areas, growing far faster than public land managers' ability to police it, the coalition says.

National growth numbers are hard to come by. But the most popular areas risk being overrun, a BLM spokesman in Washington acknowledges. One popular BLM-run recreation area, Imperial Sand Dunes in California, has ORV visits soar to 1.2 million each year, BLM officials say. Both the BLM and US Forest Service are taking steps they say will reign in ORV infractions.

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