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Four Threats - Key Messages

You are here: Four Threats > Key Messages > Unmanaged Recreation

Unmanaged Recreation

The phenomenal increase in the use of the national forests for recreational activities raises the need to manage most forms of recreation, particularly the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs). OHVs are motorized vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), off-highway motorcycles, motorized trail bikes and similar means of transportation.

Managing recreation opportunities in the national forest protects the land for the benefit of all users.

  • It is every American’s birthright to use the national forests and grasslands in multiple ways, including outdoor recreation in all its forms.
  • Visitors to National Forest System managed lands grew 18 times from 1946 to 2000. In 2002, the number of visitors reached 214 million. As the U.S. population is expected to more than double from 275 to 571 million by the next century (2100), the number of visitors to national forests and grasslands is expected to dramatically increase.
  • Rising use may trigger the need for management to protect natural resources. Some uses, like blueberry picking, do not need to be managed but other uses do. At one time, for example, mushroom picking on national forest land was not managed. During mushroom picking season, this activity is managed in some areas where necessary due to increased demand -- for the high economic return for some and health benefits for others.
  • One of the fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation involves the use of OHVs. OHV owners and users have risen sevenfold in less than three decades—from about 5 million in 1972 to 36 million in 2002. OHV users account for about 11 million visitors, or 5 percent, to the national forests and grasslands.
  • Only a small number of OHV users who use their vehicles going cross-country leave lasting traces on the land. However, even this small percentage has created undesired impacts.
  • Factors such as type of terrain, susceptibility to erosion, and vegetation type affect the magnitude of degradation caused by OHV use. Depending on the site, unmanaged OHV use can have various adverse impacts, including (but not limited to):
    • Use conflicts among different types of recreation activities
    • Impacts to cultural resource and historic sites
    • Violation of sites sacred to American Indians
    • Damage to riparian areas and species
    • Severe soil erosion
    • Spread of invasive weeds
    • Disturbance to wildlife
    • Destruction of fragile soils and vegetation
  • Decreasing availability of open space outside public land along with the surge in the use of OHVs is likely to increase the impact of OHV use on national forestlands.
  • Other public and private lands will be affected by the increasing use of OHVs. Increased population growth and urbanization and changing demographics are creating competition for space and activities.

Management of OHV use in the national forests is guided by specific policies and procedures. In July 2004, the Forest Service is scheduled to release a draft national policy covering OHV use. This national framework is intended to guide the local designation of roads, trails and areas for OHV use on national forests and grasslands. Under this framework, cross-country travel while on off-road vehicles will not be allowed.

Last Update: 8 July 2004

US Forest Service
Last modified August 11, 2022

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