Since the pandemic in 2020, there has been a dramatic increase in outdoor recreational activity in Coconino County and throughout the state. Arizonans have been using the outdoors to escape from the mundane activities of everyday life, especially when we were all sheltered in place. This has spurred the rise of the ownership and use of Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs).
With more OHV riders on the trails, an increase in OHV incidents, including the destruction of natural resources, injuries, and even death, are more common than ever before. In 2020 the Coconino County Sheriff’s office responded to an unprecedented number of calls for service. And with these calls, a massive increase in OHV crashes and fatalities occurs, according to Jon Paxton’s, Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Rollover Results in Serious Injury recent article.
With these increased injuries and fatalities comes concerns from local ranchers who worry about the damage being done to their allotments, as well as whether they will be held liable for any injuries these riders endure on their property or leased land.
Working Toward Solutions
Some Arizona Farm Bureau (AZFB) members are a part of a committee spearheaded by the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts, organized to advocate for ranchers by partnering with local land management agencies to curb this problem. Their goal is to help ranchers and other interested parties find solutions to protect the environment and lives of those off-roading.
“Things are progressing well to slow this problem down; it’s going to take years, and we need to educate these folks on the harms they are causing,” said Benny Aja, Coconino County Farm Bureau, President, and rancher.
“No one better understands or appreciates the value of our state’s public lands than Arizona’s ranchers,” added Chelsea McGuire, Arizona Farm Bureau Director of Government Relations. “That makes it all the more difficult when they see the work they’ve done in stewarding and caring for that land undermined by recreational users who don’t know or don’t respect what it means to be a good neighbor. Our grassroots members are looking forward to working with our land management agencies, fellow outdoorsmen, and policymakers across the state to help find solutions to keep our public lands healthy and thriving for everyone.”
When riders take their OHVs where they shouldn’t, the vehicles damage the soil, creating dust and other harms, including destroying native grasslands making the land harder to manage and graze cattle on. It takes many years for the land to return to a usable state, decreasing the bottom line of the rancher. Additionally, off-roaders sometimes cut fences to access unrestricted areas.
“These folks have been coming up north with their OHVs and tearing up these grasslands, which takes years for growth to occur; because of erosion, these folks have no regard for the destruction they are causing,” said Aja.
Another northern Arizona rancher points out the downstream effect. “This causes a ripple effect, and not only does it impact the rancher, but all the vendors the rancher works with feel the brunt of it as well,” said Michael Macauley, a rancher from Coconino County.
“Natural resource managers, whether it be Game and Fish, USFS, BLM or State Land must address and mitigate increasing OHV damage that is currently happening statewide on many grazing allotments,” said Becki Ross, rancher and Arizona Farm Bureau member. Ross regularly reports on the damage done to their grazing lands by off-roaders.
It has become such a massive problem that OHV incidents make up most of the calls the Coconino's Sherriff’s Office receives. As a result, the Sheriff’s Office responds to a multitude of OHV related crashes regularly. “The number one call we receive at the Sheriff’s Office is OHV related,” said Sheriff Driscoll of Coconino County.
Ranchers are concerned about being held liable for any injuries sustained on their privately owned or leased land.
To limit your exposure for a potential claim being brought up against you, law enforcement and insurance experts, like Farm Bureau Financial Services, suggest you never take matters into your own hands when trying to deter OHV riders. The State of Arizona permits OHV riders to access the land, with some restrictions in many areas of Arizona.
Legislation, like HB2130, which limits a landowner’s liability for any injuries to educational or recreational users on the owner’s land will help with this issue; additionally, the legislation makes users responsible for any damage they cause to the land.
Other legislation is currently being drafted to address the influx of OHV incidents, like SB1377, which allocates resources to put more enforcement officers on the ground to enforce OHV laws.
Deputies will vigorously enforce OHV laws and regulations throughout Coconino County. The Sherriff’s offices encourage riders to be safe and use these vehicles responsibly.
“As our state continues to grow, so will the impacts to public lands from recreation, travel, and climate change. Our charge is to provide effective management of these lands to ensure sustainability for future generations,” said Sheriff Driscoll of Coconino County,