State Parks: Give 'Em To The Off-Roaders?

Red Rock Canyon State Park, being discussed as a giveaway to off-roaders | Chris Clarke photo

Before the dust even had a chance to settle from this year's announcement that California would be closing 70 of its 278 state parks due to budget shortages, some off-road vehicle advocates were speculating that existing state parks might be best given over to ORVs, and discussing strategies to make those transfers happen.

Henry Coe State Park, a 87,000-acre wilderness east of San Jose that is the state's second-largest state park, and Kern County's Red Rock Canyon State Park were specifically mentioned as possible new off-road vehicle parks during a March meeting of the California Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Commission in Sacramento.

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The remarks, contained in a transcript of a March meeting of the OHV Commission, were brought to public attention this week by the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The meeting was called in response to a move by the legislature to transfer $10 million from the state's OHV Trust Fund to the general fund. The OHV Trust Fund, commonly called the "green sticker fund" after the state's non-street-legal registrations for off-road vehicles, is funded by taxes on the sale of fuel used in off-road travel and recreation. In 2010 it amounted to about $65 million.

At the meeting, a few off-roaders took the opportunity during the public comment portion of the meeting to advocate that the OHV Commission move to open Henry Coe to off-road vehicles. Kevin Murphy, an off-road advocate present at the meeting who did not identify himself further, pointed out that

Since the State has no real plan or perceived ability to return this money, I think we should be in a good position to take something in fair trade. I think specifically Henry Coe Park would be something we could take in fair trade. Now, I know this is an extremely bold statement, but we need to get bold right now. Our adversaries have been backing us into a corner over the last few years, and I think it's time we start pushing back. I think this issue and this time is as good as ever to try to make this happen.

Murphy went on to claim that the park's wilderness characteristics justified an OHV takeover:

Another reason to open Henry Coe Park to OHV is that the park is underutilized in its current configuration. The park's current website speaks to the trails that are very overgrown or nonexistent due to lack of use. The truth is the people of California prefer to visit State Parks on off-highway vehicles rather than with a 50-pound pack on their back and a ten-mile walk. Let's face it, this type of visitor is very rare.

A calm moment at Henry Coe State Park | Creative Commons photo by Don DeBold

The OHV Commission meeting isn't the point of origin of the park transfer idea. According to Commissioner Eric Lueder,

[The land swap idea] was discussed actually in the Budget Subcommittee hearing that I attended. Assembly Member Brian Jones from Southern California actually brought that question up and discussed it. So it wouldn't be unprecedented for us to make mention that certain members of the Assembly have looked at that as an option, and that we would certainly be open to further discussions if the Legislature and the Governor so chose.

Still, the suggestion struck a chord among others present at the meeting. As OHV lobbyist Terry McHale put it,

It is time for those moribund parks that are not being attended by people, that are sitting up there without being used, it's time to say either close to them down or let's be so bold -- we may not get Henry Coe State Park, but a lot of those parks are out there dying to be used. And you have a program where they can be used, and they can be used well.

Nick Haris of the American Motorcycle Association agreed:

Let's identify some State Parks units that are potentially good candidates for OHV use and work with State Parks, take that off their books, put them on our books, give us some opportunities.

Phil Jenkins, Chief of the State Parks' Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation department, offered a suggestion:

[T]here are a couple of parks, most notably Red Rock State Park, where we have currently the state park system allowing Green Sticker activity. It might take some of the burden off of State Parks if we were assuming more responsibilities there.

Red Rock Canyon State Park, comprising 27,000 acres along Highway 14 in Kern County's portion of the Mojave Desert, is the scene of a significant amount of both street-legal and green sticker ORV use on the park's dirt roads. At the confluence of several distinct ecosystems, Red Rock Canyon is an ecological treasure. It's also home to significant paleontological resources, and its location along natural migration corridors has made it an archaeological wonderland as well. In 2007, the State Parks commissioned a report by State Archaeologist Michael Sampson to determine the impact of vehicular recreation on the park. Among Sampson's conclusions:

There are 35 years of scientific research that detail the serious adverse effects of off-highway vehicles upon desert soils, wildlife, vegetation, archaeological sites, spiritual values, scenery, solitude, passive recreation, and other values. Arid lands simply cannot sustain vehicular recreation for an appreciable period of time, in particular, when it is loosely regulated and not well maintained. Off-highway vehicles and customized street-legal vehicles provide access to previously remote locations where extant archaeological sites and natural resources cannot be regularly patrolled, studied, monitored, or maintained.

A total of thirty-six archaeological sites are directly traversed by roads and informal OHV trails within Red Rock Canyon SP. Seventeen of the 36 archaeological sites (46%) manifest pronounced damage resulting from regular OHV use and erosion that follows from vehicular activity. Critical habitat occurs along these same routes of travel.

The damage defined here as "pronounced" includes, measurable deflation of the sites within road beds or the trail treads, degradation of cultural deposits, vehicle scars resulting from off-trail riding, road damage requiring extensive and costly restoration efforts, loss of soils in measurable volumes, loss of vegetation, creation of deep gullies, displacement and damage to artifacts and cultural features, modern-day trash left on-site, alteration of natural hydrologic patterns, and other problems.

Off-roaders north of Red Rock Canyon | Creative Commons photo by Don Barrett

Handing more of Red Rock Canyon over to the OHV Division seems unlikely to address the worst of the abuses.

What fuels this acquisitiveness among off-roaders hungry for more parks in which to hill-climb? You do hear complaints about land formerly open to off-roading being locked up. Some of those complaints may be justified. Some are certainly the result of laws simply beginning to be enforced in places where violations of the law were once tolerated.

Either way, given the proximity of Red Rock Canyon to both the gigantic Jawbone Canyon off-road recreation area and the many square miles of open ORV desert in nearby California City, it's hard to see how opening up Red Rock to more vehicular use addresses any kind of shortage.

Part of the land hunger comes from the widespread notion among off-roaders that the OHV Trust Fund comes entirely out of their pockets, thus justifying the notion that using the funds for anything but "green sticker" activity is unfair. As it happens, the majority of the fund comes from gas purchases by Californians who may not consider themselves off-roaders. The fund is allocated based on the state's estimates of off-highway travel for recreation; if you drive your Subaru wagon four miles down a dirt road to get to a trailhead with your "fifty-pound pack," your gas taxes pay into the OHV Trust Fund.

A 2006 study commissioned by the State Department of Parks and Recreation found that "recreational driving" accounted for slightly more than half of the fuel consumption subject to OHV Trust Fund tax diversion.That "recreational driving" figure includes both the expected quad, four-wheeler and dirt-bike use as well as things like passenger car sightseeing along unpaved roads. The remainder of the Trust Fund comes from sales of gasoline used off-highway for recreational pursuits such as backpacking, bicycling, spelunking, stargazing, and picnicking. According to the study, 48.5% of the gas sold to support the Trust Fund went into the fuel tanks of street-legal, two-wheel drive vehicles.

According to California state law, the Trust Fund is supposed to be used to promote and facilitate the entire range of off-road recreation, from green-sticker off-roading to nonmotorized recreation that happens to take advantage of dirt roads. PEER estimates that based on state law, 83% of the Trust Fund should be going to support "motorized access to non-motorized recreation." The California Legislative Counsel's office held in 2009 that spending trust fund money to maintain dirt road access to non-motorized recreational activity was in keeping with the intent of the law. The OHV Commission has, however, resisted calls to spend the Trust Fund on anything other than strict off-roading, State Vehicular Recreation Area management, and grant-making to federal agencies that provide similar services to off-roaders.

Despite the likelihood that much of the OHV Trust Fund comes out of the pockets of people who've never driven a green sticker vehicle or strayed from a well-maintained dirt road, OHV lobbyists and advocates continue to claim that the money belongs to them by right, and that diverting it to other uses is an injustice.

This notion of entitlement will likely spur more talk about "quid pro quo" park swaps. In a phone call this week, Assembly Member Brian Jones (R-Santee) confirmed that he'd brought up the park exchange possibility during a meeting of Subcommittee 3 of the Assembly Budget Committee earlier this year. "I more or less asked 'why don't we look at the option of taking some of these parks and turning them into OHV parks?' It was kind of off-the cuff," Jones told me. "A shot across their bow. I knew it would raise hackles when I said it. But if the OHV community comes to me with a real plan, I'll support it."

More from Chris Clarke:

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday at 10 a.m. He lives in Palm Springs.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Let's nip this idea in the bud. Parks need more funding, not more tire tracks, noise and pollution.

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Appalling. When hikers and road bikes use the parks, they leave it in a condition that other people can enjoy later. When OHVs use them, they spoil it for everyone else, both during and after their activity. It's the ultimate in selfish recreation. Given that these are state parks, meant for everyone - not every activity, mind you, but every person - it would be stupid to open them up to OHVs and lose the revenue and support brought by a wide range of recreationalists, instead of this small and selfish group.

And that's not even getting into the environmental issues and the moral obligation to preserve these parks for our children's future use.

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Let me start off by saying that I enjoy off-roading. One of the biggest thrills of visiting my uncle's farm is being able to whip across the land on four-wheelers, tearing over gullies and plowing through hay bales. (The other big thrill is shooting whatever kinds of guns I want.)

But responsible ORV use means recognizing the external costs of that usage — it does tear up ground, it does cut tracks and whip dirt and grind out plants. That destruction can be part of the thrill. However, that cost is wrong to externalize to the other citizens of this state, especially through a short-sighted land grab by some few ORV fans.

We all know that the majority of riders are responsible stewards of the great Californian legacy which we must safeguard for both ourselves and future generations, but without the budget to run these parks adequately, it would be a tremendous failure to open them up to OHVers without the necessary planning required in order to ensure that our bounty is protected for future generations.

ORVs are, at their worst, loud, dangerous machines that pose safety risks and negatively impact the environmental sustainability of our parks. And the real problem is that with nature, there's never any going back — ground scrub may recover, but damaging habitat can be hard to see and take generations to get back to "normal."

It angers me to see OHVers advocating a short-sighted and greedy public policy because I know that these folks are going to reflect poorly on those of us who believe that outdoor recreation can be managed with a long-term, minimal impact plan. These lobbyists are acting directly in opposition to the long-term health of the very wilderness that we as Californians all cherish, and I'm saddened that their venal avarice is being seriously considered by politicians in a bit of pandering political theater.

Here's a chance to prove that conservative means conserving what we have, not selling it off on whatever half-cocked lobbyist scheme is floated to avoid having to deal with the real budget problems that plague our state.

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Please let me first say that I have help restore trails and parks and I thoroughly enjoy off road riding. I believe it ohv program is a model of what the state government should be doing it is a self sustaining program that consistently shows responsibility for its parka an managing them. The Unfortunate part of ohv is that it is looked apon as the devil in society especialy in california and with thebgreen movment. Where I will agree is that ohv does cause erosion and is very damaging to the paths that are used but a responsible ohv user will not go off trail and to be hounbest 7 out of 10 are but as we know there is the 3 idjiots that destroy it for all of us and define the social view of ohv users. It is important to me that the public know that a vast majority of ohv users are resposible and do not destroy and lay waste to the trail system I believe that propor managment can cause those 3 out of 10 people to be eliminated from the picture so that these parks trails and amazing places can be here for all future generations I enjoy all the parks ona very regular bascis and want to continue to with my family and for the rest of my life I believe nature advocates and luv users can co exsist if there is a common respect and resposible use of the parks so let's make that happen