Off-highway vehicles (OHV’s, or Off-road vehicles, ORV’s) are a popular and growing recreational activity throughout New Mexico. As the population of the state increases, so does the number of OHV users seeking new trails and destinations for mechanical recreation.
Although many OHV drivers respect the rules for their use on our public lands and limit their rides to designated trails, the temptation to stray is too great for many of them. OHV’s carve trails over pristine landscapes, damage vegetation, spread invasive species, and destroy the very qualities that drew them in the first place: the beauty, solitude, and natural environment.
In Otero Mesa, increasing OHV use will cause irreparable damage to the fragile soil base, disturb wildlife and put at risk the interconnections that sustain this unique grassland ecosystem.
The soil of Otero Mesa is a thin layer of organic material layered over caliche and granite. It is held in place by a network of roots, or rhizomes of the grasses. What makes this grassland unique is its immensity, over 2 million acres, the last intact and grand swath of an ecosystem that formerly had covered southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. Overgrazing and erosion quickly altered much of the land, as desert shrubs overtook the more delicate grasses.
This same process will be repeated if OHV use spreads in Otero Mesa. Besides the direct visual damage that the tires cause, soil compaction by the heavy machines makes it harder for the land to absorb water from the low annual rainfall. Arid areas are much more susceptible to the destructive impact of OHV’s.
Off-road vehicles, from heavy ATV’s to lighter dirt bikes, can destroy wildlife habitat. Burrows for desert tortoise and prairie dog tunnels can be crushed by the vehicles, or the animals themselves killed. With the acute senses of wild animals, they tend to avoid OHV areas because of noise and diesel odors. The physiological stress that this causes as the animals are displaced from their preferred habitats can cause reproductive failure or mortality. As the land is fragmented by unauthorized OHV trails, the web of life is broken. Wildlife and birds leave the threatened area, and even the vegetation community changes. OHV emissions, especially from the older, 2-stroke engines, do not burn fuel completely and produce a significant amount of airborne contaminants. These can include nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, aldehydes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and some known human carcinogens. Studies have shown that the contaminants accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals near OHV traffic areas.
Fugitive dust is also a problem caused by OHV use and concomitant soil erosion, leading to air quality decline. Invasive plant seeds can be spread by the tires, and germinate more quickly than native plants on the compacted ground.
The health of the land is measured by the richness of its biodiversity, strength of its soil, abundance of vegetation, and habitat condition for wildlife. Watershed condition is another metric of the health of the land: and underneath Otero Mesa is the largest untouched freshwater source in the state, the Salt Basin Aquifer. Contaminants from OHV emissions can percolate down to the watershed, impairing this vast and precious reserve.