Taking off across the prairie with your off-road outfit can be fun, but it can also damage sensitive grasslands left waterlogged by recent snow and rain.
And that has U.S. Forest Service officials concerned.
Off-roaders are welcome in the Railroad Buttes area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands about 15 miles east of Rapid City on South Dakota Highway 44, but some people are abusing the privilege, officials say.
For instance, Forest Service officials recently found a pickup mired to the floorboards in a Railroad Buttes mud hole. Tire tracks from various vehicles have sliced deep gouges in the landscape.
"It's an area where we, in our forest plan, in our travel management, designated as an area where we would allow some of the off-road riding," said Fall River District Ranger Mike McNeill.
The travel management plan was intended to reduce some of the damage done by off-roading by giving off-roaders a place to go, but not when the soil is saturated.
"Mud-bogging is not compatible with that objective," McNeill said. It's also illegal. Anyone caught mudding on federal lands can face fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail. Restitution fees to repair damage can also be assessed.
Signs advising off-road vehicles not to use the area when it is wet are posted, but some people ignore those signs, McNeill said.
"It's not widespread," McNeill said.
Robin Robertson has owned the Country Corner convenience store for 15 years. Her family runs cattle in the area and notices off-road vehicles chasing cattle away and damaging the landscape.
Robertson said, however, that 99 percent of the recreationists follow the rules. It’s the one percent that cause issues. She understands both sides of the argument, as “they need a place to ride.”
Grassland visitors typically stop at her business for refreshments and gas.
Roberston said off-roaders are not the only ones causing problems on the grasslands. Game hunters and rock hunters will cut across trails or drive if they don’t feel like walking, which contributes to the damage.
She added that people have been riding out that way for years, but more people are visiting the area, which makes a seemingly small problem grow exponentially.
A Baja off-road area about 7 miles west of Interior on Hwy. 44 is also designated for off-road use. So far, off-road enthusiasts have not caused any significant problems in the area, according to Alan Anderson, Wall district ranger.
Railroad Buttes receives more use because it is closer to Rapid City, but the area has fragile soils that can be damaged by off-road vehicles when it's wet, Anderson said.
"They can make a mess if they want to," he said.
Repeated misuse of those areas can create open ruts and tear up the grasslands, Anderson said.
"If it's muddy, we would like people to not go out there. That's the bottom line," McNeill said.
There are roads and tracks designated for travel on the grasslands, but travelers should consider the conditions before they use those routes this fall, Anderson said.
Anderson also reminded hunters and recreational off-roaders that when they venture off those designated routes, "they are not only breaking the rules, but they have a good chance of getting stuck."