Is off-roading bad for the environment?

By: Julia Layton
Nature's beauty in a forest of trees.
Dirt bike and ATV trails contribute to siltation and habitat destruction at Yellow Creek in Ohio. See more off-roading pictures.
Photo courtesy of Ohio EPA

Few people would argue that off-roading isn't exciting -- going off the beaten path in a blaze of speed over jolting terrain to the roar of an engine. And with 44 million Americans devoted to off-roading as of 2007, the sport must have something going for it [source: CSM]. Vehicles like ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) and dirt bikes give their riders a real thrill as they maneuver over unpaved ground. But there's a problem.

A debate has been raging for years about the wisdom of allowing off-road vehicles -- ATVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles or Jet Skis -- the unregulated use of natural public spaces, since off-roading can disturb vegetation, wildlife and the general ecosystem. The land-based vehicles have garnered additional attention due to a 2010 deadline for U.S. National Forests to finish mapping out designated areas for off-roaders, effectively limiting their access to public lands [source: Burns].


Off-roaders are up in arms, claiming they should have full use of the space. Environmentalists are up in arms, some claiming off-road vehicles should be banned completely. But why?

It's pretty simple, really: By definition, off-roading puts automobiles in areas not designed for automobiles. This has a variety of effects on the natural environment, including:

  • Disturbing the ground: Off-road vehicles can churn up soil, leading to ruts, damaged root systems, compacted soil, accelerated erosion, more frequent dust storms and/or increased sedimentation in waterways.
  • Disturbing vegetation: In addition to damaging plants in the process of driving over them, off-road vehicles can spread seeds as they churn up soil and vegetation, aiding in the spread of weeds that can damage native plant life. A Montana State University Extension Service study found that one dirt bike can distribute 2,000 seeds over a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius [source: NTWC].
  • Disturbing wildlife: As a natural habitat is churned up, eroded or invaded by noxious weeds, the wildlife that depends on it suffers. Also, the engine noise from ATVs and dirt bikes can frighten off animals, not only kicking them out of their habitat but also depriving hikers and campers of the chance to spot them.

There is, of course, plenty of disagreement about the extent of these effects, making it difficult to establish sweeping regulations. For their part, many off-roaders do agree there needs to be some level of regulation. After all, 1 million new off-road vehicles are purchased every year in the United States, making for some pretty crowded open spaces [source: Burns]. There's not much point in going off the beaten path if there's no space to maneuver -- or scenery to enjoy -- once you're out there.

For more information on off-roading and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Burns, Melinda. "Off-roaders Leaving Environmentalists in the Dust." Miller-McCune. May 23, 2008.
  • Clayton, Mark. "Off-road-vehicle bans seem to please no one." The Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 2008.
  • Eilperin, Juliet. "Dust Storms Escalate, Prompting Environmental Fears." The Washington Post. April 23, 2009.
  • Field Guide to Off-Road Vehicle. Natural Trails & Waters Coalition.