Washington, DC — An Easter weekend gathering of a thousand off-road vehicle enthusiasts degenerated into “near riot conditions” in a Utah recreational area, according to an incident summary released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). More than 37 injuries, including a state Highway Patrol officer, led to the issuance of 300 arrests or citations by the more than 50 officers who were called to the scene from state, federal and local law enforcement agencies.
Large assemblages of off-road vehicle (ORV) users are becoming an increasingly severe law enforcement problem on public lands, particularly over holiday weekends. In this incident, many of the 35,000 visitors to the Little Sahara Recreation Area in Utah were terrorized by inebriated gangs of ORV riders during the weekend of April 6, 7 and 8. According to an official summary:
“Officers were faced with near riot conditions on two separate nights involving approximately 1,000 people which required all available officers and over 5 hours to mitigate the situation… Groups of partiers were blocking an area and forcing women to bare their breasts in order to leave, along with numerous incidents of unwanted fondling of women. When law enforcement officers took action, the crowd became unruly, throwing objects at the officers.”
“This sort of out-of-control behavior should not be tolerated anyplace, let alone on our public lands,” stated PEER Southwest Director Daniel R. Patterson, who formerly worked with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for the Little Sahara Recreation Area. “Families should be able to visit national recreational areas without worrying about being subjected to sexual assault or confrontations with packs of drunken rowdies.”
Because of the vast desert acreages under BLM control, those lands have become the haunts for ever- larger convocations of ORV users. Pervasive alcohol and drug use contributes to growing injuries, not only to riders but to bystanders and to law enforcement officers responding to incidents. In addition to the public safety toll, these mega-gatherings wreak havoc on desert landscapes, with streams of riders often ignoring trail markers or other measures designed to keep ripping tires off of fragile wildlife habitats.
The problem is not confined to the BLM. The U.S. Forest Service also reports rising attacks on its rangers in connection with ORV encounters. ORVs allow deeper penetration into remote, formerly wild, areas by people seeking to escape social restrictions, often leading to destructive acts.
“Our rangers are not equipped to deal with hordes of mechanically mounted maniacs,” added Patterson, noting that while BLM has admitted the incident, it has tried to downplay it and has yet to change any area use policies or practices. “This destructive trend in off-roading blurs the line between recreation and riots –with visitors and rangers stuck in the middle.”
PEER is investigating the Little Sahara incident as part of a national probe into the public safety and law enforcement costs arising from reckless ORV use.