One of my biggest reasons for getting interested in riding ATVs was not just because I love riding them, it was to be able to more easily access beautiful parts of the country. I have always loved the outdoors and am an avid nature photographer. As such, one of my biggest questions when I first started riding ATVs was whether I could ride them on federal lands. As we all know, much of the really incredible landscapes in the United States are protected by being made federal land, so I wanted to know if I could ride an ATV there. You should also be sure to check out our complete list of legal requirements in every state.
Unfortunately, the answer is not as easy as yes or no. There is a lot that it depends on as there are only general rules for riding ATVs on federal land, and then each individual location has its own rules. In general, you are not allowed to ride ATVs at any National Park. There are four National Recreation Areas, one National Preserve, and seven National Seashores that permit some ATV use (see below). Most of the National Forests permit ATV use on specified ATV trails and roads only. BLM land is going to permit the most ATV use, some of which is limited to trails and some is open use. Generally, the best place to start is the interactive travel map online (see below) that shows the restrictions at each piece of federal land. It is important to note, those are not legally binding and you will need to consult an official an Motor Vehicle Use Map for the federal land you intend to ride on. Only by reviewing such a map can you be completely confident you are legally riding an ATV on federal land (unless you are already on site and following posted signs).
Before determining whether you are able to ride an ATV on a particular piece of federal land, you are going to need to learn some specialized language.
- OHV: OHV stands for Off-Highway Vehicles. It is defined as any motorized vehicle designed for or capable of cross country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or other natural terrain. This categorization includes ATVs, four-wheel drive vehicles, snow mobiles, boats, personal watercraft and/or dune, sand, and swamp buggies.
- MVUM: MVUM stands for Motor Vehicle Use Map. These are the maps used for federal lands to designate which roads and trails are open to which kinds of vehicles.
- Open: Land that is Open means that all types of vehicle use is permitted at all times anywhere in the area.
- Limited: Limited areas are lands where OHV use is restricted at certain times or where use is only authorized on designated routes.
- Closed: Closed areas are federal lands that prohibit any OHV use.
Two executive orders define and generally guide OHV use on federal lands. The first (E.O. 11644, February 8, 1972) defines an off-road vehicle, now commonly referred to as an off highway vehicle, as “any motorized vehicle designed for or capable of cross country travel on or immediately over land, water, sand, snow, ice, marsh, swampland, or other natural terrain.”
A subsequent executive order (E.O. 11989, May 24, 1977) amended the 1972 order to exclude military, emergency, and law enforcement vehicles from the definition of off-road vehicles (to which restrictions would apply). It also provided authority to immediately close areas or trails if OHVs were causing or would cause considerable damage to the soil, vegetation or wildlife. Areas could remain closed until the manager determined that “the adverse effects have been eliminated and that measures have been implemented to prevent future recurrence.” Also, each agency was authorized to adopt the policy that areas could be closed to OHV use except for those areas or trails that are specifically designated as open to such use. This meant that only open areas would have to be marked, a lesser burden on the agencies.
The Interactive Travel Map
The federal government has published an interactive travel map that lets you explore all federal land in the United States and see what trails are open for what kind of vehicles. You can specifically search for trails that are open year long or just seasonally. You can also search for certain types of roads and/or trails, including those open for all vehicles, highway legal vehicles only, vehicles 50 inches or less in width, motorcycles only, other special vehicle designation or wheeled OHVs that are less than 50 inches in width. This map is a really awesome starting point to explore areas you want to ride and find legal trails on federal land.
The interactive travel map does not replace the MVUMs as a legally-reliable source, but they are the easiest way to get started. Unlike the MVUMs, the interactive travel map also does not display designations for motor vehicle use for dispersed camping or big game retrieval.
Each National Forest has its own restrictions. While this is daunting, The National Forest Service does the best job, of any of the federal agencies, of making the information, on where ATV use is permitted, easily accessible. You can start by visiting the web site of the National Forest you are interested in, easily found with a Google search. On the web site of the National Forest, you can determine OHV restrictions by clicking on “Recreation” on the left menu, then click “OHV Riding” in the drop-down menu below that. There is also a website that has a link for where to get the MVUM for each National Forest. This website has all the National Forests organized by state so you can easily find what you are looking for. This is super helpful as you can get the specific MVUM for the National Forest you are looking for; however, there is no universal system for obtaining the map to any individual National Forest. As such, you will have to follow the link to the specific National Forest to determine the available method for obtaining the MVUM you want.
The most convenient are those National Forests that offer MVUMs via the Avenza PDFMaps App. From the website above, you will be able to see if your National Forest offers a downloadable version of the MVUM via this app. The best part is the MVUMs available on this app is that those MVUMs are free to download and use.
If your National Forest doesn’t offer the Avenza App, you will need to purchase a MVUM from the National Forest Map Store. These maps typically cost $14 each.
National Park Service regulations generally limit OHV use in the park system to four types of National Park Service land units—national recreation areas, national seashores, national lakeshores, and national preserves. The regulations also require special rulemaking, with environmental impact analysis and public comment, to designate routes and areas for OHVs in these park units. The National Park Service’s management policies provide additional guidance, stating that OHV use “may be allowed only in locations where there will be no adverse impacts on the area’s natural, cultural, scenic, and esthetic values, and in consideration of other existing or proposed recreational uses.” The National Park Service recognizes that motorized recreation on National Park Service lands brings into conflict the two parts of the National Park Service’s mission to converse public land and provide enjoyment to the public. In response to this conflict, the policies generally emphasize the conservation of park resources in conservation/use conflicts.
The National Park Service has fewer lands open to OHV use than do other federal land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. In fact, only 12 of the 398 park units are open to public recreational use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), four-wheel drive vehicles, and/or dune, sand, and swamp buggies. The twelve units, each of which provide different levels of use, include Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Big Cypress National Preserve, Gateway National Recreation Area, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Assateague National Seashore, Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Fire Island National Seashore, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Padre Island National Seashore, and Cape Lookout National Seashore.
In 2013, the National Park Service reported that its 398 units, covering 84.4 million acres of land, received more than 286 million recreational visits in 2012, with use of OHVs in the parks—including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, personal watercraft, and others—gaining in popularity. The National Park Service is concerned with how these newer forms of recreation intersect with more traditional, nonmotorized forms of recreation, including land-based activities such as hiking, camping, hunting, birdwatching, horseback riding, and rock climbing, and water-based pursuits such as fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and rafting.
BLM land is, by far, the most open federal land to ATV use. Only 13.1 million acres of BLM land is closed to OHV use. That amounts to a mere six percent of BLM land. In contrast, 146.6 million acres of BLM land is limited-use land, meaning OHV use is limited to specified trails. OHV use is also open, meaning you do not need to stick to trails, in 66 million acres of BLM lands. Finally, there are large portions of BLM lands, mostly in Alaska, that are not designated. On those undesignated BLM lands, there are no restrictions to ATV use, so you are free to go buck wild, responsibly of course.
Finding which BLM land permits what kind of ATV use is a little more difficult. The best method I have found is by looking for OHV maps on the BLM maps site. You may not be able to find a map for the specific land you are wanting to visit, but this is best resource I have found so far for BLM land.
In 2008, the BLM reported an approximate 58 million recreational visits on federal land administered by the BLM. While most visitors to public lands will not be riding an ATV, the amount that are is significant. An estimated 1.8 million OHV users visit just the US National Forest lands every year. With all that use, a toll was being taken on the land.
In 2008, the BLM determined continued designation of large areas that remain open to unregulated “cross-country travel” is not a practical management strategy. Instead, field offices are directed to focus OHV travel on designated roads and trails. While road and trail restrictions are preferred, field offices still can and have designated open areas, where unrestricted OHV play is permissible.
The BLM views closures as being sometimes necessary to protect and conserve resources or for public safety in a particular area. As closures can be very controversial, the BLM claims to frequently attempt to work with affected or interested parties to reach agreement on options to address a particular challenge before issuing notices of motorized travel restrictions or temporary closures. Most closures remain in effect until conditions change, impact is reduced or a new decision is addressed in a plan.
The BLM deploys 195 law enforcement rangers and 56 special agents across the public lands, which amounts to about 1 for every 1.2 million acres. Given those numbers, the BLM acknowledges enforcement is challenging. As such, they especially focus their enforcement efforts in high-use recreation areas, such as the sand dunes in Southern California, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, especially on long holiday weekends and during major events.
The Argument for and Against OHV use on Federal Land
OHV supporters contend that the vehicles allow visitors access to hard-to-reach natural areas, bring economic benefits to communities serving riders, provide outdoor recreation opportunities for the disabled, senior citizens, and others with mobility limitations and, with snowmobiles, allow increased access to sites during winter. They assert that technological advances will continue to limit noise and pollution, decreasing the impact of OHV use on other federal land users.
By contrast, opponents of OHVs on federal lands assert that these vehicles damage the environment and cultural artifacts, pose safety concerns, and conflict with other forms of recreation. They also contend the various agency staffing levels are inadequate to effectively monitor motorized use and its impact on park resources. Opponents of OHV use specifically in National Parks also cite the availability of other federal lands, such as BLM and Forest Service lands, where OHV use is more likely to be permitted.
Among environmental concerns raised by OHV critics are potential damage to wildlife habitat and land and water ecosystems, the impact of dust on winter snow melts and water supply, noise, air, and water pollution, and a diminished experience for recreationists seeking quiet and solitude and/or hunting and fishing opportunities. Critics of OHV use also point to the beneficial economic impact of nonmotorized recreation on local communities
The Outdoor Industry Association reports the economic benefits of nonmotorized recreation (on both federal and nonfederal lands), including camping (consumer spending of over $143 billion annually, supporting over 1.3 million jobs), wildlife viewing (consumer spending of over $33 billion annually, supporting over 289,000 jobs), and fishing (consumer spending of over $35 billion annually, supporting over 307,000 jobs), among others. Another study found an overall contribution to the economy of over $730 billion annually from “human-powered” types of recreation such as hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, skiing, paddle sports, and bicycling. Opponents of OHV use cite to these numbers, claiming such economic benefits are put in jeopardy by increasing OHV use.
Much of the regulatory actions taken in the National Parks and other federal land stems from a 2005 lawsuit against the National Park Service where this argument was placed in the hands of a court. The lawsuit was initiated by environmental organizations Friends of the Earth, the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads, and the National Parks Conservation Association. The groups alleged that ATVs and other off-highway vehicles constituted a “serious threat” to National Park Service’s resources that the agency allegedly had failed to address. The lawsuit was settled in 2008, when the National Park Service agreed to implement a number of regulations restricting OHV use over the next several years.
Other Important Information
It is important to note that some trails may only be seasonably open to ATV use so you will want to double check your MVUM before each ride.
If you have followed all the steps above and cannot find the answer for a certain piece of federal land, or you just want to be extra cautious, you can always call or visit the local ranger station to seek confirmation of OHV permitted use.
When riding an ATV on federal land, you need to ensure your ATV is equipped with a USFS approved spark arrester. These spark arresters are required accessories to help prevent wild fires. If you are caught riding on federal land without an approved spark arrester, you can be hit with steep fines. It is also worth remembering you may be liable for fire suppression costs in the event you start a fire riding your ATV. If you have ever watched coverage of planes dropping water on a forest fire, you can imagine how expensive that could get.