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Black Hills National Forest working to manage boom in off-road vehicle use

Local residents and Forest Service workers brainstorm solutions to help balance an increase in off riders with the needs of other forest users.
Arielle Zionts
Local residents and Forest Service workers brainstorm solutions to help balance an increase in off-road vehicle riders with the needs of other forest users.

The Black Hills National Forest is working to balance recreation, business, the environment and grazing land as it sees an explosion in off-road vehicle riders.

Riders "have just completely ballooned in the last few, probably five years. I would say it's more than doubled in traffic," said Kevin McNitt, who rents vehicles at the Mountain Meadows Campground near Deerfield Lake.

Kate Shreves, a member of the Norbeck Society conservationist group, is also following this issue.

"Hopefully we can come to a good resolution because it's out of control right now," she said.

McNitt and Shreves were among the dozens of people who attended a meeting on the topic Tuesday in Hill City.

About 40 people attended a meeting in Hill City about OHV growth in the Black Hills National Forest.
Arielle Zionts
About 40 people attended a meeting in Hill City about OHV growth in the Black Hills National Forest.

OHVs include all-terrain vehicles, utility-terrain vehicles, off-road motorcycles, and vehicles like Jeeps and rock crawlers that can handle rough roads.

"People who come here to recreate, almost all want to do the right thing," said Jerry Krueger, deputy supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest. "It's how do we help them do the right thing, how do they recreate responsibly, and what do we do to reach out to those folks."

Krueger said the Forest Service has already taken action, such as defining vehicle widths and quadrupling the amount of trail rangers who help educate forest users, Krueger said.

But the Forest Service is also looking for stakeholder groups to commit to voluntary action.

OHV riders want to preserve and expand trail access while governments, chambers of commerce and OHV manufacturers, sellers and renters have an economic interest.

Hikers, cyclists and horseback riders have concerns about crowding, safety and maintaining the quality of mixed-use trails.

Private landowners want OHV riders to stay off their property that's intermixed with the public forest land. Ranchers who lease grazing rights in the forest want the riders to close cattle gates and stay away from their herds.

Tribal groups care about protecting and accessing sacred areas for ceremony, while environmentalists have concerns about noise and the impact to wildlife and the environment.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is looking to balance all of these interests and prevent damage to its trails and supporting infrastructure like signage.

Stakeholders broke into small groups to brainstorm solutions and implementation strategies during the Hill City meeting. They then shared their ideas with the entire group.

Colt Clewley, a UTV rider and video-maker, shares the solutions his group came up with.
Arielle Zionts
Colt Clewley, a UTV rider and video-maker, shares the solutions his group came up with.

McNitt, the campground owner, said he educates his UTV renters about local rules and trail etiquette, such as avoiding wet or muddy trails that could be damaged by UTV traffic. He also takes the proactive step of closing rentals on days where it would be impossible to avoid such conditions.

McNitt said other renters should do the same.

"I think there's definitely a lot of room for improvement with education there both for renters and people that bring their own machines out here," he said.

Other attendees said people should have to watch an educational video or read a pamphlet when they sign up for a permit or rental, or download maps.

People said there should be more educational campaigns on billboards, traditional media and social media.

They also said the trails need improved signage so UTV riders know width limits, private property/grazing boundaries, which trails they can use, and what the fines are if they break rules.

Colt Clewley is from Custer but rides UTVs across the country as part of his job making videos for BleepinJeep.

A "horrible gray area" is how the Forest Service has clear funding to maintain its trails but not roads, Clewley said. He'd like to see the South Dakota government distribute wheel tax income to Forest Service roads, not just state ones.

Clewley also said UTV permits, which currently only fund trail maintenance, should also be allowed to fund signage, educational campaigns and trail monitors.

The meeting was also attended by members of the Norbeck Society, which advocates for environmental and public lands conservation.

Member Doug Shreves, who lives in Rapid City, said he's concerned about UTV noise.

"Part of the outdoor experience is just the silence, just being out there where there's just nature," he said.

Gerry Renner said tribal nations also have a stake in the UTV issue.

"The Black Hills has always been a spiritual place for the Native American tribes that would come here and live here and visit, and we need to respect that and always make sure there's a spot for that beauty and that spirituality in the Black Hills," she said.

Other ideas presented at the meeting:

  • Promote electric vehicles, which are more quiet.
  • Create an OHV riders organization and expand trails in the Southern Hills to reduce crowding elsewhere.
  • Create an OHV tip line where people can report violations, similar to the tip line for poachers.
  • Ask OHV manufactures to create responsible advertisements, not images of people riding through mud.
  • Ask campgrounds to hand out educational brochures.
  • Host educational events at schools.
  • Create a contract between the Forest Service and volunteer groups who can help with simple trail maintenance.
  • Allow groups to "adopt" a trail, similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program.
  • Seize vehicles and permits from OHV users who break serious rules.
  • Require special permits for large groups of OHV riders.

The next meeting on OHVs is a virtual Zoom meeting at 6 p.m. on April 12.
Learn how to join the meeting and read about progress on the OHV issue by visiting the Black Hills National Forest's website on OHV Vehicle Workshop Collaboration.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.