'Off-Road Rage' Climbs as Trails Get More Crowded

ATV enthusiasts use the Buckhorn Rim Trail in Utah. How the vehicles share public land with hikers, bicyclists and horses has become a thorny issue.
ATV enthusiasts use the Buckhorn Rim Trail in Utah. How the vehicles share public land with hikers, bicyclists and horses has become a thorny issue. (By Whitney Curtis -- Ogden Standard-examiner Via Associated Press)
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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

FARMINGTON, N.M. -- As more and more Americans light out for backcountry trails, officials are seeing a parallel rise in episodes of "off-road rage": unpleasant, even violent encounters between drivers of all-terrain vehicles and hikers, mountain bikers and others.

"Move your bike or I'll run over it," the driver of a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle warned Bill Connelly, who had laid his mountain bike across a trail in the Glade Run Recreation Area, just outside Farmington. Signs were posted banning motorized vehicles from the stony track, and in the summer of 2006 Connelly was tired of ATVs going wherever they wanted.

"Go ahead," he said, according to Dan Dunn, his riding partner that day.

The ATV then crushed the bike, Dunn said, and Connelly grabbed the four-wheeler's handlebars, which brought the driver, a high school wrestler, off the machine, announcing, "I'll show you, old man."

Dunn and Connelly limped home with broken ribs.

"I hate these things. They're loud. They're obnoxious," said Bill Burgund, 61, an amputee with one leg who was walking on a Bitterroot National Forest trail in Montana last year when an ATV careened around a corner, snagging his crutch, wrenching his shoulder and knocking him to the ground.

"If I'd had my druthers I'd have shot the guy," said Burgund, a retired police officer who packs a sidearm on his daily walks. "It's a good thing my arm was so screwed up or I might have."

Federal officials charged with administering public lands say confrontations that erupt into violence on crowded trails in the West remain rare, but they warn that resentful frictions are rising. The region is the fastest-growing in the United States, driven largely by residents' desire to live near scenic public lands that, on weekends near urban areas, can be downright crowded.

"The West is just filling up, and more people are going out to use public lands than ever before," said Heather Feeney, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that oversees 258 million acres, or about 13 percent of the land surface of the United States.

"So conflict management is probably something that's here to stay," she said.

Like the U.S. Forest Service, the region's other major landlord, the BLM is soliciting public involvement in "travel plans," deciding which trails will be reserved for hikers, which for horses, which for ATVs and which everyone must try to share.

The task has gained urgency with the surging popularity of off-road vehicles. Since President Richard M. Nixon issued a 1972 executive order directing federal agencies to protect public lands from ATVs, the number of people riding the machines has grown tenfold, to perhaps 50 million, according to a federal survey.

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