Off-roaders are tearing up the land, but stopping them is more than one man can do
If you drive or bicycle the three-mile length of Chico’s Old Humboldt Road from Bruce Road to its juncture with Highway 32, you’ll notice that the rain-softened dirt on both sides of the country lane has been torn up in dozens of places. Ruts as deep as a foot or more are common, and there are tire tracks cleaving John Bidwell’s historic Humboldt Wagon Trail that runs alongside the paved road.
This is the work of thrill seekers, young men in jacked-up pickups and four-wheelers with oversized tires whose idea of fun is tearing through puddles, spinning donuts and throwing up mud. That they leave devastation in their wake doesn’t seem to concern them—but it angers Larry Chrisman, and he’s determined to do something about it.
To that end, the self-employed environmental watchdog and longtime Sierra Club member recently invited the CN&R to join him at the one of the power lines on Old Humboldt Road, just east of the city limits, so we could tell the public just how bad the situation is. The degradation along the road is nothing compared to what’s just off the road, he said.
We stepped out of our cars and started walking north, toward Highway 32. It was a sunny, breezy day following a series of spring rains, and the hills were green with new grass.
There were signs of off-road vehicles wherever we looked. OVR drivers like splashing through water, and this time of year in the lower foothills it’s reliably found in vernal pools, which are habitats for certain endangered species. All of the vernal pools in the area had been driven through and rutted.
After about 50 yards we descended into a shallow hollow, dropping down just enough to be invisible from Highway 32 or Humboldt Road. A small seasonal creek ran through the little valley.
Left alone, it would have been a pretty place. But it hadn’t been left alone. There were a couple of abandoned cars, both riddled with bullet holes, as well as several large dump piles, including one that was clearly from a construction site.
Worst of all, the place was criss-crossed with off-road-vehicle tracks, nasty, rutted, bald areas that seemed especially ugly next to the springtime greenery elsewhere in the hollow and were certain to erode anytime it rained.
This is the kind of destruction that incenses Chrisman. It’s ubiquitous, he says, showing photos of tire ruts on levees off Meridian Road and mentioning the damage dirt bikers are doing to undeveloped land off Floral Avenue near Sycamore Creek.
It’s ironic that some folks get so upset over the relatively minor damage done to the disc-golf site in Upper Bidwell Park, Chrisman says, when much worse damage is being done to thousands of acres in and around Chico, including rare vernal pools.
Chrisman has been doing all he can to limit the damage from ORV use for more than 20 years. An avid cross-country skier, he was at first concerned about the proliferation of snowmobiles in the back country, but about 10 years ago he began noticing tire tracks and ruts at one of his favorite hiking sites, Colby Meadows, near Jonesville.
He started going to Colby Meadows regularly, taking a camera and documenting the abuse. Since the meadow is on Forest Service land, he started calling the service’s law-enforcement officers and others to complain about the destruction.
He believes the service is “working on it as hard as they can. … They’re aggressively pursuing it.” But the USFS lacks sufficient officers to cover its vast holdings.
The problem, he says, is national in scope: “It’s everywhere.” As evidence, he carries around a large coffee-table book titled Thrillcraft, which documents the damage ORVs have done from Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve to California’s Algodones Dunes.
Thrillcraft are motorized toys used primarily for recreation—or “wreckreation,” as opponents like to say. They include dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft (jet skis), snowmobiles, swamp buggies and dune buggies. Other vehicles, such as four-wheelers like Jeeps and Land Rovers and suspension-lifted pickups with oversized tires, serve double duty as road vehicles and thrillcraft.
These vehicles are big business. Nationally, nearly 50 million thrillcraft have been sold, and there are untold numbers of four-wheel-drive vehicles used for off-roading. Indeed, thrillcrafting is one of the appeals manufacturers use to sell their vehicles. Anyone who watches television has seen commercials showing muscular pickups climbing over rocks and splashing through creeks in an evocation of their brute force and dominance over nature.
Their impact on wild lands is well documented. Speaking in March 2008 before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public Lands, Henri Bisson, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, said, “The combined effect of population increase in the West, unauthorized user-created roads, explosive growth in the use of OHVs [off-highway vehicles], advances in motorized technology, and intense industry marketing have generated increased social conflicts and resource impacts on the public land.”
Not all owners of these vehicles are irresponsible, of course. Many, perhaps most, go off road only in designated areas and seek to minimize any damage they might do. ORV groups such as Tread Lightly! (www.treadlightly.org) and Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org) that encourage responsible use receive strong support from the ORV industry as well as the hundreds of private ORV clubs around the country.
Still, there’s no question that irresponsible use is rampant, as Larry Chrisman has documented. And public officials are stymied in their efforts to stop it.
One of the people Chrisman has contacted is Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk. Humboldt Road is in her district.
“The problem is [the Humboldt Road site] is on private property,” she said. She’s talked with the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the area, Doug Patterson, but he patrols from the easterly Chico city limits all the way up Highway 32 to Butte Meadows and Jonesville and can act only if he catches a perpetrator red-handed.
“We put up no-trespassing signs, and they’re gone in a day,” Kirk said.
The illegal-dumping problem is a code-enforcement issue, she added, but with the county drastically cutting its budget, the public can expect less, not more, enforcement.
“If you think of something I can do, let me know,” she said plaintively.
Chrisman is as frustrated as Kirk is. In addition to Kirk, he’s talked with Patterson, local California Highway Patrol officials, and city of Chico officials (who said they couldn’t act without a complaint from the landowner). He’s written articles for the Butte Environmental Council’s newsletter and the newsletter of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
He’s spoken with members of Tread Lightly! and the Blue Ribbon Coalition (www.sharetrails.org), an industry-backed nonprofit lobbying for increased ORV access to public lands, as well as local four-wheel clubs and the group Friends of the High Lakes.
But he feels overwhelmed by the challenge of taking on a multibillion-dollar industry. “The biggest problem is how does a little guy like me get in contact with General Motors and Ford?”
So he’s staying focused on the local problems. Right now he’s preparing an article for the Chico Velo newsletter. Old Humboldt Road will be on the upcoming Wildflower Century route, and he wants to call attention to its problems.
Like his friend Fran Farley, who for years has been trying to protect the Humboldt Wagon Trail, Chrisman believes Old Humboldt Road should be preserved.
The city has approved the 1,300-unit Oak Valley subdivision just north of the road, and plans call for the road to be significantly expanded to handle residential traffic. Farley and Chrisman say that would be a disaster for the wagon trail.
“In my perfect world it would be a long, linear park,” Chrisman said.