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The COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot, including the landscape of some of the most peaceful and sacred parts of of Arizona desert.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) says that during the pandemic, more and more people went out, many in off-road vehicles. While some were off the beaten path, many people were not, and some are still not following the rules.
We take a look at why this is wreaking havoc on the state’s beautiful landscape.
Where there is no designated path or road, this is not stopping hundreds of thousands of motorbikes, jeeps and four-wheelers from exploring an area.
“Off-highway vehicles are what they say. Arm-for-arms are referred to as UTVs like Polaris, Razors, Can-Ams, there are different types,” explains AZGFD Officer Micah White. He is the Highway Enforcement Program Coordinator.
According to the department, road sprawl is a major problem. Almost everywhere you look in the state, you can see new roads that have been created by these tools.
Once the tire tracks are laid, everyone follows.
“If you go back to 2020 at the height of COVID and the lockdown, we saw unprecedented forest use,” White said. “There was a new group of users on the landscape and these people didn’t seem to know it. They didn’t have a land ethic, they didn’t seem to know that there were rules out in the middle of nowhere that you had. Staying on the road, you know . That you can’t drive like a maniac, that there are rules to riding these machines.”
Barriers used to protect land are often found in ruins.
“They crash cattle, you can’t hold a gate together for less than a month and it’s all twisted and broken,” said Andrew Parry who works for a farmer in the Cottonwood Canyon area.
Cattle gates, equipment and salt blocks have been destroyed and found in pieces, Parry says, adding that cattle have been hit and killed by speeding off-road vehicles.
Destruction is widespread.
The video was captured by an AZGFD camera west of Sedona on Bear Mountain where Deanna Bindley lives.
“The blatant disregard, the speed, the carelessness. There were people two weeks ago here on the main street tearing up donuts right on the main street with people around and cars. It’s absolutely disgusting,” she said.
Bindley says the noise from the machinery is destroying the quality of life for local residents, scaring animals and killing habitat.
“Probably the biggest problem we have with OHVs tearing up and down our forest service road is all the dust they create. These cars, even when they’re going, say, 20 miles an hour, they’re creating a lot of clouds big dust storms. and a lot of them are going 40 and 50 miles an hour. We have a big dust problem and what’s happening is the dust is covering all our roadside trees, our juniper trees and killing them ,” Bindley said.
Fines for habitat damage
“Out here in the middle of nowhere, we don’t have speed limit signs and so people think you can drive as fast as you want, and that’s not the case,” White said. “It’s illegal to drive outside the country where it’s prohibited by law, if you’re driving across the country it’s a criminal offence. If you’re causing damage to the habitat it’s also another criminal offence, and if you’re destroying native plants , you can civilly assess the value of those plants and that can get really expensive depending on the amount of damage, the amount of destruction you’re causing.”
White says traveling abroad is a misdemeanor criminal offense and if caught, you can be arrested or cited. Fines for cross-country travel range from $475 to $1,000 depending on where you are in the state.
The cost of the fine can increase significantly if you cause habitat damage. According to the AZGFD, a recent case was deemed a felony due to the severity of the damage and the rider was ordered to pay $10,000.
However, enforcement of these laws will only go so far. They need the community and riders to take responsibility.
That’s where Jay Hoff, owner of Desert Dog Off-Road, comes in.
“Unlike traditional on-road driving, there hasn’t really been any kind of training for people to drive off-road, but there is, you know, a level of courtesy of driving habits that should be observed there. using moderate speeds when cornering, understanding how a vehicle should go up a hill and down a hill,” Hoff said.
It provides maintenance of these vehicles as well as tours.
“Staying on the road, staying on the right, being a careful driver, being a good steward of the environment, these are all things that people should all do conscientiously so that we can continue to enjoy what we we have here”, he said.
More closures in the future?
White says if the problem isn’t stopped, he’s worried land management agencies will be forced to close. Desert Wells in La Paz County is already closed due to off-road vehicle damage and more restrictions will follow.
This may be the only way to save our earth.
“I appreciate that. I didn’t think that would ever happen,” Parry said.
AZGFD wants everyone to enjoy Arizona’s beautiful land, but will investigate reports of behavior that destroys it.
In Arizona, all off-road vehicle operators are encouraged to complete a safety education course before they hit the trails. This is practical training for licensed drivers aged 16 and over conducted by AZGFD certified instructors.